10 Smart Ways to Say “I Don’t Know”

“If you don’t know the answer, say you don’t know the answer. People will accept that you don’t know… what they cannot accept is if you tell them something that’s wrong, because they are going to act on that. And, then if you have to come back later with a different answer, you’ll lose credibility.”

– F. Mark Gumz, former President and CEO of Olympus Corporation

As the de facto learning and development guy at Stitch, I get a lot of questions about our product and its integrations. While I can usually offer a helpful answer, there’s a lot that I don’t know. Acknowledging that reality and saying “I don’t know,” is really hard, but it’s almost always smarter than feigning knowledge.

In the knowledge economy, especially, we want to be perceived as knowledgeable. We don’t want to say anything that might undermine the confidence we share with colleagues, customers, and business partners. We also, quite simply, want to help.

These desires are justified. In a moment of need, people want answers, but more importantly, they want honest, accurate information. They want people who avoid jumping to faulty conclusions. They want people who, in the absence of knowledge, ask good followup questions and find answers.

Here are ten smart ways to say “I don’t know.”

When you should know…

  • “I’m not sure, but I’ll find out and let you know.”
  • “I’ll look into it and get back to you with what I find.”
  • “That’s a good question and I want to give you an accurate response. Let me get back to you by end-of-day.”

When it’s not your area of expertise…

  • “Here’s what I know, and here’s what I don’t know.”
  • “I’m not the best person to answer that. I recommend talking to…”
  • “CJ can get you more information on that. My information suggests…”

When it’s an opportunity to learn together…

  • “Let’s find out.”
  • “Let’s test it.”

When the question only sort of makes sense…

  • “Can you share more context?”
  • “That’s an interesting question. Tell me what’s driving it.”

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