No matter what your job or level, your work life is always throwing questions at you. Some of them are easy to answer with a confident “yes,” “no,” or a well-reasoned explanation. Others aren’t. Most of the time it’s no big deal when you don’t have a solid answer right away. But sometimes a question can really stump you, and defaulting to “I don’t know” or “I’ll get back to you,” can risk diminishing your credibility–especially if those are your go-to responses every single time you’re put on the spot at work.
Instead, try these four ways to answer difficult and unexpected questions without sounding incompetent and clueless.
1. ANSWER FROM YOUR OWN LEVEL
When you’re a leader or a manager, you might have a broad understanding of your team’s work but not its every detail. But when you’re asked a question that’s a few layers down from your level of responsibility you still need to do more than just say, “Let me get back to you on that.” That answer’s a surefire way to position yourself as a human search engine, not a leader.
I recently worked with a CFO who stumbled on a question about a specific market, when his position required him to focus on the big picture. My advice was to take it up to a level he was comfortable with. For example, he could’ve said, “I understand your concern about that market. It’s an important space. But I think the bigger issue you’ve raised is . . .” By acknowledging the request and then elevating the point to the real issue as he saw it, he could demonstrate his leadership by guiding the discussion with respect and clarity.
2. PROJECT YOUR ANSWER INTO THE FUTURE
If you’re asked for your opinion about a subject you haven’t thought much about, you might stumble trying to come up with something thoughtful, or worse, say something you regret that you didn’t mean. In these situations, the key is to think in the moment and then immediately look forward from there, not backward.
Let’s say you’re talking about authenticity and leadership when someone asks you, “Superheroes change into costumes when they’re going to use their powers. Do you think business leaders change into ‘corporate’ costumes when they speak in front of audiences?” If you go backward and try to recall a previous example of this type of thing to reflect on, you’ll get yourself into a maze of confusion, and you won’t deliver a coherent response.
But if you stay in the moment, you’ll allow your thoughts to flow forward with your speculations. This way, instead of getting tied up recounting past experiences–which may not even be a good fit for the question–you can answer more hypothetically and strike a positive, forward-looking note at the same time. So for example, you might acknowledge how leaders might need to “suit up” to have the confidence they need, or point out that some feel they need to hide behind a “costume because” they feel like they can’t be themselves. Then you can say how you hope that, eventually, most leaders manage to shed those impulses and become more authentic. The point is not to come up with a right answer–because there isn’t one.
3. USE QUESTIONS ABOUT OTHERS TO SHARE YOUR OWN VIEWS
Other times, you’ll get asked a question that has nothing to do with what you’ve just said. Perhaps it’s someone who isn’t familiar with your industry or who has a different perspective on the issue.
I recently worked with an executive from a Major League Baseball team. He was speaking about increasing ticket sales when, out of nowhere, somebody ask him about a trade that another team had made. Rather than just saying he hadn’t given it much thought, he should’ve said, “I can’t speak to what they were thinking regarding that particular deal, but here are some of the considerations we make when thinking about making a trade.” That type of answer turns an unrelated question about someone else into an opportunity to display leadership yourself.
4. SHOW GRATITUDE FOR QUESTIONS YOU CAN’T ANSWER
It’s impossible to prepare for every possible question. Nobody’s perfect, and every once in a while you’re going to be asked a perfectly legitimate question that you unfortunately can’t answer.
When this happens, first acknowledge the value of the question. Then be honest and explain that you’re going to need to look into it more. “I’m going to explore that because I think there are a lot of valuable insights we could gain by examining this area further,” you could say. They may not be satisfied with your answer, but this is a much better response than, “I don’t know” or changing the subject altogether. By making it clear that you’re committed to looking into it, you’re showing that you care and take their question seriously.
Classifying tricky questions into categories like these helps you avoid panic and answer more analytically. Just remember, questions are seldom just requests for information, they’re also great opportunities to showcase your thinking and show leadership–even when you don’t have a ready answer.