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

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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

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