Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 21, Issue 26;   June 30, 2021: Answering Questions You Can't Answer

Answering Questions You Can't Answer


When someone asks an unanswerable question, many of us respond by asking for clarification. That path can lead to trouble. Responding to a question with a question can seem defensive, or worse. How can you answer a question you can't answer?
Handling Q&A after a presentation

Handling Q&A after a presentation. This is a situation in which you'd like to be able to handle all questions with aplomb. Sometimes it doesn't work out that way.

Some questions are difficult to answer for solidly legitimate reasons. Examples: you personally don't know the answer, or the answer is unknown to Humankind, or mathematicians have proven that the question is unanswerable [Castelvecchi 2015]. But other questions are unanswerable because they're poorly posed. They're ambiguous, or self-contradictory, or they contain misstatements of fact, or they contain false presuppositions, or any of numerous other issues.

Yet, sometimes we're required to respond to questions we can't answer as posed. The setting or situation can seem to leave no other choice. Or the questioner demands a response. But responding to a question you can't answer by initiating a dialog to clarify the question — no matter how politely and respectfully — can be a bad idea.

So you can't answer the question, and asking a clarifying question is risky. What then?

Let's first survey the risks associated with asking clarifying questions. In what follows I'll use the name Phillip for the Poser of the unanswerable question, and the name Rachel for the Respondent.

A clarifying question can seem to be criticism
Unintended criticism is the most significant risk associated with asking clarifying questions. Phillip (the "poser") might interpret the clarifying question as a criticism of his actions, including his motives for asking, his ability to pose a question on this subject, or his ability to pose a question on any subject.
These risks are Some questions are difficult to answer
for solidly legitimate reasons: you don't
know the answer, or maybe nobody does
elevated if Phillip and Rachel (the "respondent") have a history of rivalry or toxic conflict. In that context, confirmation bias can lead Phillip to perceive Rachel's clarifying question as yet another example of their ongoing conflict.
The Respondent can seem to be reluctant to answer
Asking clarifying questions can seem to be a tactic Rachel is using to protect herself or someone else. Phillip or others within earshot might assume that Rachel has something to hide. They might suspect that she's hiding her own ignorance, or stalling for time while she composes a more substantive response. Or she might be stalling for time while she composes a lie. Or she might be hiding a past error or transgression, on her own part or on the part of others.
If Phillip attributes any such motives to Rachel as she asks her clarifying question, he's more likely to escalate tensions than he is to clarify his question. These risks are elevated if Rachel has used the clarification tactic frequently in the recent past.

Understanding these risks helps us formulate safer responses to unanswerable questions. Here are four example response strategies.

Take your best shot and expect to be corrected
Rachel can consider Phillip's question, make her best interpretation, and give her best answer. If Phillip is messing with her, she would do well to expect to be messed with still more. If Phillip is confused himself, then Rachel's best answer will at least do no harm.
Taking your best shot isn't the option of last resort. Nor is it particularly clever. But it does allow you to focus all thought on the content of your response. It's a good choice if your questioner is hostile and powerful, or if you're feeling stressed or overmatched.
Ask for more time
Some questions are premature in the presentation context. That is, Rachel will be providing a response later in her presentation. In that case, when Phillip poses his premature question, Rachel can say, "I'll be getting to that in a few minutes, is that OK?" Most questioners will agree to wait, but if Phillip doesn't want to wait, and if he is politically powerful enough, Rachel might need to skip ahead. If the mood is light enough, though, Rachel can respond with, "You've been reading my mind again Phillip, I'm coming to that." Or some such.
Some questions are premature in any context. That is, Rachel will know the answer at time T, but until that time, neither she nor anyone else can provide a reliable answer. For such questions, a straightforward explanation is the best option — "I don't know, and nobody will know, until time T."
There is one exception. The exception case is when the question is meant as an attack, and Phillip (the attacker) knows that Rachel won't have an answer until time T. In that case, Rachel doesn't have an alternative in the moment. All she can do is provide a straightforward explanation.
But if you can anticipate the attack, you can make clear, repeatedly and over time, that certain questions — and you will supply examples — won't have answers until time T. And, of course, explain why not. Then later, if anyone is foolish enough to attack you with unanswerable questions before time T, you can cite your previous advice that the answers wouldn't be available until time T.
Respond with multiple choice
In this response, Rachel avoids asking for clarification by providing multiple answers to cover the most likely interpretations of the question. The general form is "If A, then X. Or if B then Y… Otherwise Z." She can include as many "if" clauses as she likes, but more than two or three can become a bit impractical.
Precise wording can be important. For example, suppose Phillip has asked, "Can we get this done by the end of the fiscal year?" And suppose that given the context, the phrase "fiscal year" is ambiguous. That is, suppose it's unclear whether Phillip meant FY22 or FY23. Then the following response could be off-putting or hostile: "If you mean FY22, then no. Or if you mean FY23 then yes." A safer response would be, "If FY22, then no. If FY23, then yes." The "you mean" phrases can seem off-putting or hostile, even though they aren't literally offensive.
Leave a space before responding
Sometimes, if you leave a space before responding, the questioner will elaborate voluntarily. Then the elaboration might be clear enough to remove any doubts about the interpretation of the question. By "leave a space" I mean, pause thoughtfully, and say something supportive, such as "Hmm, I see," or "Right," or some other content-free comment.
This tactic is helpful if the question is unclear, and it isn't meant as an attack.

If you must respond to an unanswerable question, and you really don't have a direct answer, you might be tempted to make up what you don't know. That's perhaps the riskiest approach of all. Another word for it is deception. Go to top Top  Next issue: Time to Let Go of Plan A  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info


Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Castelvecchi 2015]
Davide Castelvecchi. "Paradox at the heart of mathematics makes physics problem unanswerable," Nature, 09 December 2015. Available here. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

A variety of fruit choicesWhen All Your Options Are Bad
When you have several options, and all seem politically risky, what can you do? Here are two guidelines to finding your way to a good outcome.
President George W. Bush of the United States and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi ArabiaSocial Transactions: We're Doing It My Way
We have choices about how we conduct social transactions — greetings, partings, opening doors, and so on. Some transactions require that we collaborate with others. In social transactions, how do we decide whose preferences rule?
Santa Claus arrives at 57th and Broadway in New York in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day ParadeNarcissistic Behavior at Work: IV
Narcissistic behavior at work is more damaging than rudeness or egotism. It leads to faulty decisions that compromise organizational missions. In this part of the series we examine the effects of constant demands for attention and admiration.
Monarch butterfly (top) and Viceroy (bottom)Three Levels of Deception at Work
Deception in workplace politics is probably less common than many believe. Still, being ensnared in a deception can be a costly and upsetting experience. A valuable skill is recognizing the three types of deceptions: strategic, operational, and tactical.
Bollards in Washington, D.C., customized to meet National Capital Planning Commission's design recommendationsCovert Obstruction in Teams: I
Some organizational initiatives are funded and progressing, despite opposition. They continue to confront attempts to deprive them of resources or to limit their progress. When team members covertly obstruct progress, what techniques do they use?

See also Workplace Politics and Devious Political Tactics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceComing July 3: Additive bias…or Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
The standard conception of delegationAnd on July 10: On Delegating Accountability: I
As the saying goes, "You can't delegate your own accountability." Despite wide knowledge of this aphorism, people try it from time to time, especially when overcome by the temptation of a high-risk decision. What can you delegate, and how can you do it? Available here and by RSS on July 10.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.