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I am going to attend a big meeting after this week and I have to prepare some answers to questions which are commonly asked during the meeting.

My concern is there are some questions that are beyond my knowledge.

How can I answer a question during the meeting when I don’t know the answer, while ensuring others think that I am still professional and trustworthy, although I don't know the answer.

Usually, I would say "I’ll get back to you later once I have done research", but this feels so unprofessional.

What should I say to answer questions beyond my knowledge during a meeting?

Additional Information

I am a programmer. Usually, I will attend a meeting to answer some technique questions asked by any client.

I believe anyone of us will be facing this kind issue during the meeting.

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  • 52
    Why do you think it unprofessional to say that you have to research the answer to a question? – Brandin May 4 '16 at 12:50
  • 21
    "I don't know off the top of my head. I'll research that and get back to you." – Amy Blankenship May 4 '16 at 15:15
  • 49
    It's not unprofessional to say "I don't know". It is unprofessional to act like you know something when you don't. I see this behavior too often, and it inevitably makes you look like a fool. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft May 4 '16 at 15:47
  • 13
    I was told after one of my job interviews that I was offered the job specifically because I was willing to admit that I didn't know the answer to a question, and that question was asked for the express purpose of seeing whether a candidate would admit when they don't know something. I just had a discussion this morning about how pretending to know something that one doesn't actually know is an anathema to effective network administration. – Todd Wilcox May 4 '16 at 15:58
  • 2
    @Brandin "I don't know" sounds honest and straightforward. "I'll get back to you later" often means "... and if you believe I'm really going to get back to you, more fool you". In any case, the OP is talking about a meeting, and productive meetings should be about getting enough information to make a decision about something by the end of the meeting, not at some (unspecified) future date. You rarely need all the information which might be relevant to make a good decision, but what you do need is accurate and reliable information, not speculation. – alephzero May 4 '16 at 16:05

10 Answers 10

87

No matter how knowledgeable you are, there is no way you could know everything.

Some stuff is really complicated and cannot be actually prepared for. It is going to happen quite regularly, and there is no shame in admitting that you don't know. Actually, it's better to say you don't know than babbling nonsense to save face, that's unprofessional.

I believe saying "I actually don't know about this, but I will look into it" is perfectly fine. If you think you cannot do this on your own and need help, say it. If you are able to find the answer by yourself, you can get back at the other attendees (by email, for example) to share what you've found. Maybe you will feel a bit silly at that moment, but you cannot be professional if you are not honest !

  • 34
    "I actually don't know about this, but I will look into it" is a great phrase and I use it myself. The only caution I have is that if you say it for every question, you look like you don't know anything about what you are doing. The follow up point is especially important. You need to follow up as soon as you can with the results of the research. You don't want the phrase to sound like an excuse to change the subject. You want people to know that when you say you will look into something that you will. – HLGEM May 4 '16 at 13:23
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    Also, when you say "I will look into it" you're making a public commitment to actually go and look into it. You will be expected to report the answer to this question at least to the asker, but most likely to the entire group. Otherwise, you may look like you're trying to hide something (even if you aren't). So if you say you're going to look into something, you need to follow through. – corsiKa May 4 '16 at 15:51
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    @corsiKa: I often say "I don't know, but I'll find out and get back to you by the end of the day/week/month". Having a deadline always helps to motivate me. – TMN May 4 '16 at 17:26
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    @corsiKa: Oddly, the reason I personally dislike the phrase "I will look into it" is precisely because it's so noncommittal. All it technically commits you to is Googling whatever "it" is, or asking a friend over lunch, or just making any other token effort -- and nobody can really check whether you did even that much. If you want to project confidence and responsibility, something like the "I'll find out and get back to you by <deadline>" suggested by TMN above is much better IMO. – Ilmari Karonen May 4 '16 at 18:04
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    @TimM That can be risky as it can give the impression of dodging, especially if what you state as known seems obvious to the asker – Myles May 4 '16 at 19:34
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Bring a notebook. If you have a good idea of questions you may be asked, jot down numbers or dates in the book so you can refer to it when you are asked.

On a blank page of your book, write down everything that is asked to anyone else.

When you are asked, answer if you can. If you don't know, say "I don't know". Consider adding "I can find out and get back to you." That is not always the right thing to do. Sometimes the right thing is to add "But I believe Steve does, isn't that right Steve?" or "We won't be able to work that out until we hear from the vendor, which is supposed to be next Wednesday" or "at this point it's all waiting for the final legislation and there's no schedule on that at all." Sometimes the question isn't super relevant, nobody needs the answer, they were just asking, so stop at "I don't know."

Also, be careful that in answering the question, you are not accidentally making a promise, especially one you're not authorized to make. This is especially true when dealing with a client. "Can we have those three reports in this deploy?" "Will there be an extra charge for the new formats?" "How long until more developers are assigned to this work?" Here, whether you know or not, you don't say "I don't know" you say "that's not my decision." Yes, a steady stream of "you'll have to ask my boss" may not feel like great customer service, but if the answers aren't yours to give, don't answer. These "questions" are actually decisions in disguise, and if the client springs them on you it's usually to get free stuff from the junior who doesn't know any better. Be careful. "That's [manager]'s decision. Do you want me to pass the request along?" generally works for these.

If you agree to look into something, make a clear note in your book (not mixed up with other unrelated notes) including the question, who wants to know, and perhaps some urgency level. When the questioning moves on to someone else, scribble down what you were asked and what you said. (I had a guy who used to forget what he said last week about how close he was to done and ask "what did I say last time?" -- not a good answer.) You can tidy these notes up later but capture "reports 90% done, still need prices, next week ui polishing" so that in the next meeting, you recall what they already know.

Blindly offering to find out no matter what you are asked can be as bad an answer as making something up. Listen closely to the question and react accordingly.

After the meeting, review quickly what you were asked and whether you feel not knowing was a problem or not. Sometimes it is not possible to know, and it's not your fault or your problem that you don't know. Other times, it's clear you were unprepared. So take 15 minutes to think about how to be sure you will not be unprepared next time.

  • 2
    Add "That is outside the scope of this project" for questions that do not have to be answered for the current purpose, and for which it would cost non-trivial time and effort to get the answer. – Patricia Shanahan May 4 '16 at 15:03
  • I see soooo many people in meetings these days with no notebook, or they bring one but literally never open it. And it hurts. If I have an action item following a meeting, it gets a line in my notebook and a color-coded post-it flag depending on what priority it is. First thing each day, I run down my list of high priority action items. Periodically throughout the day I check them all. It's just so important. – corsiKa May 4 '16 at 15:55
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    it's possible these people make notes in their phones or on tablets or laptops they bring with them. The problem is, that can look exactly like checking facebook during the meeting. A paper book is unmistakable and tells others that you are recording the item and will do it. – Kate Gregory May 4 '16 at 15:59
  • In addition to the above, I would strongly recommend asking for questions ahead of time so you can prepare information to address them. Good meetings should have good agendas - which means people have an idea of the topics that they are going to be talking about and knowing what the agenda is will allow you to take 15 minutes before the meeting to review key information, which will make it more likely you will be able to answer important questions. – Mark May 5 '16 at 14:21
4

Do not lie. You will look unprofessional for a very long time if you try to fool everyone else. If you're not going to have an acceptable answer, start coming up with solutions to help find one.

  1. I need more time.
  2. Other members of the company need to be recruited to get their expertise.
  3. The company needs to hire outside help since it doesn't have expertise in this area.

We all want to be the hero with the answers, but sometimes you have be the person who finds the hero.

  • 2
    Even more important than "do not lie", do not guess. You probably don't want history to remember you as "the guy who persuaded everyone that doing X was a good idea", and that can be embarrassingly easy to do if everybody else in the room knows as little about X as you do. – alephzero May 4 '16 at 15:57
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    @alephzero I think that guessing is okay, as long as you make it clear that you are unsure and will look into it further, and there are no final decisions based on your guess. – Tim May 4 '16 at 18:01
  • @alephzero - Good point. I would say if you're not being upfront about your lack of certainty, you're getting into dishonest territory. – user8365 May 4 '16 at 18:56
4

Usually, I would say "I’ll get back to you later once I have done research", but this feels so unprofessional.

That is so so so soooo wrong! Answering a professional question that you have no clue about, without doing any research, is actually the unprofessional thing to do here.

Telling someone I will research on this and get back to you is one of the most appropriate responses you can have. If I was the interviewer or even your boss and I was certain that what I asked is not everyday knowledge that you should already know, I would be pleased with your response.

3

As a developer-cum-DBA who often gets dragged into client meetings I feel your pain, but...

"I’ll get back to you later once I have done research", but this feels so unprofessional.

That isn't unprofessional at all. Unprofessional would be to try completely avoid the question, or make something up on the spot that sounds convincing (there is nothing wrong with thinking on your feet, but be clear that is what you are doing or you risk setting unattainable expectations).

How you word your response can make quite a difference to how you look in the eyes of the client though so perhaps a stark "I don't know, I'll get back to you." might not be the best choice.

I tend to open responses like this with "That is a good question", follow with a best guess ("I think it might be X", "we could possibly address that with Y", "you could probably Z"), and finish with the "but I'll have to check on a few things and get back to you to confirm".

Also if the people in the meeting are existing clients with active users then depending on the question you can also push it back a little: your further investigation might be to request more detail from them or their end users (directly or by investigating application logs to see how they actually use a particular feature which might not be exactly how it was designed), so you might add in "can we talk in more detail offline?" or point out that part of what you are going to do is look into how they specifically work with your service. This can actually help you show professionalism: you are not spending a chunk of meeting time (if there are a few of you and a few of them in the meeting, wasted time gets expensive quickly) going over an unknown in detail so you are being efficient, but you are actively engaging (or showing the intent to engage) with them and their requirements. Of course be careful here not to overstep your boundaries within your own team - for instance I'm usually trusted to discuss matters directly with the client offline, but early in negotiations with new prospects or when dealing with a "politically" difficult matter (i.e. when something has gone wrong) or just a difficult client generally, there is a more definite chain of command with regard to who talks to who about what.

Sometimes there is no good "best guess" in which case you have to go with "that is a good question, I'll have to look into X before I can give a useful answer" is all you can say and unless the others in the meeting are unrealisticly demanding (and if that is the case it isn't your professionalism that is under question) that is fine.

tl;dr: What you are suggesting isn't really unprofessional at all, but you can significantly improve the impression you give with careful wording.

2

Taking notes and preparing ahead of time is important, but there is another aspect that you touched on that I do not believe others have addressed.

It sounds like you are concerned not about whether or not you can answer anything off the top of your head, but the impression of not having an answer will have on your audience.

The critical piece is instilling confidence in your audience.

Saying "sorry, I do not have an answer but will follow up after the meeting" works. What is better is saying "I think X and Y get us partway there, but there is also Z which I need to follow up on. Previously I have done similar work and found W to be a concern, but Z is new to me" or some variation may be better.

In other words, it may help to demonstrate some limited knowledge of the answer and your ability to find it, rather than a simple "I do not know." As long as you phrase it in a way that is not too verbose while showing people you are knowledgeable on your subject matter you will give them confidence in your ability to answer it later.

N.B. Having been a software professional for many years, I have seen people of all levels of seniority and org chart level use this method and very rarely have I seen a customer react negatively - generally only when the person or organization has already dropped the ball multiple times in the past, reducing their confidence.

1

I agree with the other answers about it being okay to answer honestly if you don't know, but I would add that people often prefer to hear a partial answer or even a guess from an expert, as long as you clearly denote it as a partial answer or guess and promise to follow up with a definite answer later.

You wouldn't want to do this if it would lead to contractual or legal obligations, even assumed ones. For example, you don't want to give an off-the-cuff guess to a customer of how long it's going to take to deliver a complex feature he just told you about.

Also, it's helpful to just explain how you're going to find out, instead of saying, "I don't know." This gives you more confidence and makes you look more competent to others.

1

When being asked a question you don't know the answer to, the question falls into three categories.

A question you really should know the answer to.

Something that is totally inside your purview, and you should have been prepared for. For example, "When will you have X project done?" when your the lead on that project.

Your best bet in this case is to guess, and guess correctly. Then hold your self or your team to the answer. Again these are questions you should know the answer to.

A question that someone else should know.

These are questions that should be deflected to someone else. For example, "When will other team have project X done?" Your best course of action in this case is to suggest that it's not really your area but that you could look into it. "That's Bob's project but I can take a look if you want." In most cases, the asker just doesn't realize that it's not your question. You need to be careful, your not trying to "push blame" or take over. Your just trying to inform the people there, that it's not your issue. In fact if the meeting is taking a turn for the worse, you could say something like "I'm not currently assigned to project X, " and leave it at that.

A question you just don't know the answer to.

There are lots of questions that you can't be prepared for, or can't anticipate. If your don't know the answer, and it's not primary to your situation. Then a simple "I'll have to look into that" is perfectly fine, and in fact preferred.

What's the difference between the first type and the third? Your area of responsibility and the meetings purpose. If the meeting is to assess status of a project, then it's not ok not to know the status of your part. It is ok not to know total length of phone line that will be used during the next phase of the project.

Examples:

For these meetings your the project lead for your part of project X, a project to build a giant letter X on the side of the building.

Status Meeting:

Q: When will you be ready to start painting?
A: We are still waiting on color choices, after that we will need about a week

Q: When will the color choices be in?
A: Bill is heading the task force in charge of color choices, I can ask him if you like.

Q: How much rope are you gonna need when you finally are allowed to paint the X?
A: I will have to get back to you on that, I don't have the figures in front of me.

The first question you really should know. It's a major part of your job. The second question isn't really your job, but you know who's it is. The third is a question you just could not have anticipated. It's still your area, but how were you supposed to know that it was gonna come up in a status meeting.

As a rule of thumb try to never say "I don't know" always "I'll have to research that". The primary difference is that "I don't know" is final. "I'll need to research that" is open ended.

  • 1
    Your strategy for the first kind of question is quite high risk. If you aren't prepared, your guess will probably be wrong, and you'll end up looking bad. Unless you can give a very safe guess, I would much rather admit "Sorry, I'm not prepared to report on that" and explain why, even though it is a costly admission. – user45590 May 5 '16 at 15:36
  • I agree it's a risky answer. But, again it's only for questions that you really should know the answer to because that your job and it's what the meeting is about. Saying IDK in that situation is extremely bad. i.e. Lets say it your job to make color choices, and this meeting is all about the color choices for project X, then when someone asks you "What color are we going to use on X?" Your just screwed, if you don't know. You would be better to be prepared, or reschedule the meeting, but now with all those people in the room using their time, just say "Yellow", and fix it later if you have to – coteyr May 5 '16 at 16:22
  • It's hard to tell the difference between 1 and 3. There are very few questions that fall into the first category, and in all circumstances that I can think of your better of rescheduling then going to the meeting unprepared, but if you have goofed up enough to find yourself in that situation, then it's better to be wrong then to have not "done your job". Either way it's a sucky situation. – coteyr May 5 '16 at 16:25
  • I like the rest of this answer quite a bit, but the suggestion to guess in situation 1 keeps me from upvoting. That would be fine if you made it clear that you're speculating. – DCShannon May 6 '16 at 2:19
1

Like this:

I don't know.

Exactly that.

I don't know.

Straightforward, honest, humble.

There's nothing worse than having to deal with someone who, when faced with a question to which they do not know the answer, try to mumble around the issue and make it appear that they know more than they do. It is always exceedingly obvious and not at all endearing. I recently rejected an otherwise fair-to-middling job candidate for almost solely this reason.

Managers appreciate somebody who is capable of admitting, "I don't know".

If it falls within your remit to know, you can demonstrate your use and industry by adding afterward:

But I will find out for you.

And that's it! No need for any "tricks" or social engineering. Just say the words.

If your managers think that you are unprofessional and of no use to them after this, then it's almost certain that they already had that impression from your work. Either that, or they are insane!

0

Sometimes there are questions that we don't know the answer but we have an idea, or sometimes we have a smart guess about the topic. Ff that is the case I usually say something like this

I am not sure if this is correct, but I think ... etc, etc. Just remember that I am not sure about that answer, okay?

Because it involves about your field of expertise, chances are your guess might be helpful to them, note that if you really don't know and you don't have any idea about the question you can say I don't know, sorry. No one will think that you are a fool.

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