What will you almost never hear from men in business? Don’t know? You’re close. I’ve seen very few men in business meetings ever say, “I don’t know.” Have you noticed that, too? I think it’s smart that men avoid admitting what they don’t know. I think more women should pay attention to how they respond when they don’t know the answer to a business question. There are ways to answer questions that you don’t know. Some ways are better than others. Here are some options to consider.
You’ve got a few choices when you don’t know the answer. First, don’t fall for the gotcha questions. Think of any reporter’s questions of a politician where the reporter knows the politician doesn’t have the answer. That’s a gotcha question. Not every question has the right to be asked. If you’re asked that type of question, you will probably sputter your answer going all over the place without giving a response. Instead, question your need to answer the question. You can say, “Why do you think I, in my position as marketing manager, need to know that?”
Then there are some questions that should not be answered. Hypothetical questions get you in trouble because your job is not to answer questions that won’t occur. These are the questions that trip you up because they are filled with emotion. If you are asked, “What about the competition reducing prices and capturing our largest market shares? What would you do?” Instead of “I don’t know” you can question the emotions behind the question. Is there concern for a stronger competitor? Is there concern about a loss in market share? That’s what you need to be talking about, not what you would do in a hypothetical situation and especially if you don’t know.
You may not know the answer to hostile questions. When someone is in your face asking you a question with “hot” words in it, be careful. “How can that ridiculous proposal work?” is a hostile question that can hurt you both by not having the answer as well as accepting the hostility in the question. First, remove the hostility. The word “ridiculous” is unacceptable. So remove it when you respond. Then when you respond, choose to answer it differently. You don’t have to give particular information. You can talk about the answer in the future with general information. Politicians are masters of giving non-answers. My answer would be, “How can the proposal work? With the support of all the participants and our usual attention to detail, I’m sure the proposal will work.” Notice, the hostile word is removed.
I’ve always told my clients, never point out your own weaknesses to others in business. Saying “I don’t know” is something men intuitively understand that makes them look weak. When you don’t know the answer, at least you will know how to respond. That’s what I know.