Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 24, Issue 16;   April 17, 2024: How to Answer When You Don't Know How to Answer

How to Answer When You Don't Know How to Answer


People engaged in knowledge work must often respond to questions that test the limits of their knowledge, or the limits of everyone's knowledge. Responding effectively to such questions advances us all.
Old books, the standard symbol of knowledge

Old books, the standard symbol of knowledge. Books remain the symbol of knowledge even though most knowledge today is held in electronic form. Image by stux courtesy Pixabay.com.

Teams engaged in knowledge work do something over and over again, week after week, day after day: they create new knowledge. Another way to say this is that they ask questions they had not previously asked, and then they find answers to those questions. Briefly, knowledge workers generate business value by forming those questions and then answering them.

For example, the person who contributes to developing a plan for bringing a new product to market is a knowledge worker. So is the person who contributes to the design of that new product.

The knowledge generated by knowledge workers need not be new to humanity, or revolutionary in any sense. But it is new to the people who generate it, or to their organization. Knowledge workers form and answer questions such as:

  • "What alloys should we use in the exterior cabinet?"
  • "What color of LED should we use for the non-fatal fault indicator?"
  • "Are we permitted to ask him if he has been vaccinated for Covid-19?"
  • "What version of the C compiler do we need for the on-board software?"
  • "How many people will we be laying off at Springfield in Q3?"

Knowledge workers exchange questions and answers in a variety of venues: email, MS Teams, videoconferences, and even face-to-face meetings. One common exchange is in the form of what we often call "Q&A" or "discussion" in meetings. It begins when someone asks a question of someone else. It's a question that has never been asked before in this group, or if it has been asked, the answer needs refreshing. The questioner (Quentin for Questioner) isn't necessarily intending to trap anyone; the question might be novel, but it's legitimate. And, like everyone else in the meeting, the person Quentin targeted (Tracy for Target) doesn't actually know the answer to the question with certainty.

When something When composing a response to a question,
uncertainty can be troublesome if you're
someone who regards as a sign of weakness
anything less than a definitive response
like this happens, "Tracy" (the Target) is on the spot. She knows something about the answer, but not enough, and not with enough certainty. The general principle for finding responses beyond "I don't know" is this: find something useful to say. Here are six guidelines for finding something useful to say when someone asks you a question that you can't respond to definitively.

Recognize questions that will have answers in the near future
The source of Tracy's uncertainty can sometimes be an item with a short lifetime. That is, work underway or planned for the near future might be incomplete right now, but it might resolve some unknowns that would enable Tracy to give a definitive response to the question.
If Tracy recognizes that the question will have an answer in the immediate future, she can respond with something along the lines of, "We can't yet answer that, but Rachel and her team are running simulations that will give us some high quality estimates by early next week." Reporting that work is underway to produce an answer in the near future is a much more useful response than reporting that we don't know right now. It might enable people to make plans.
Employ for-now responses when possible
Sometimes you don't have an answer to the question as it was asked, because it pertains to a specific situation not covered by the knowledge you have. In some such cases, responding with an answer for the situations you can address might be helpful.
For example, consider responding to the question, "Is the catch basin capacity adequate?" A for-now response might be, "The catch basin we have in place does meet current needs, but models indicate that its capacity could be questionable if the development for University Square includes the proposed number of town homes. The amount required depends on the number and style of the homes."
Recognize unanswerable questions
Some questioners are unaware that what they're asking is beyond the ability of anyone to answer. In formulating a response, the temptation is to explain that the question is unanswerable. For example, Quentin might be asking about Person X's intentions. Or he might be asking what Person X knew and when Person X knew it. Such questions might have answers, but obtaining the answers might be so extraordinarily difficult that the question is actually unanswerable.
Explaining to Quentin that the question is unanswerable entails a risk of offending him by seeming to be condescending. A safer approach involves demonstrating that the question can't be answered: "I wouldn't know how to go about getting that information using any methods we have available. Maybe someone else does? Can someone point me in the right direction?" Such requests risk little if the question truly is unanswerable.
Seek consent to reframe the question to one you can answer
Even though you might not be able to answer the question as posed, you might be able to answer a related, but different, question. And your response to that related question might be of some value to Quentin. But reframing question Q to question Q' and then answering Q' can risk seeming to be evasive.
To mitigate that risk, explain that you can't answer question Q as posed, but you do have some related information that might be useful. Then ask for permission to answer the related question: "With your permission, let me offer a response to a related question." Then proceed to form Q', and give your response. Another equivalent form is, "If I may, let me respond to a related question." Mix up a variety of forms to avoid repetitiousness.
Seek information to reduce your uncertainty
Although you might be unable to respond to the question as posed, you might be able to comment definitively about related special cases. Consider what variables you would like to remove or restrict, or consider what related situations you might be able to address.
Preface your remarks with an admission that you can't address directly the question as posed. Then ask permission to comment on related situations, saying "Perhaps those comments would be helpful." Always ask permission, to avoid seeming to be evasive.
Ask whether sources of uncertainty would be useful
Tracy might not know the answer to Quentin's question, but she might know what the missing pieces of the answer are. In response to the question, she can say something like, "We don't yet have an answer to that, but I can tell you what the missing elements are." Then without waiting for permission from Quentin, she can list some of the unknowns.
Often, only questioners who are experts in the subject matter will be familiar with the unknowns related to any open questions. A recital of the most important unknowns can sometimes stimulate fruitful discussion.

Last words

When composing a response to a question, uncertainty can be troublesome. Trouble comes if you're someone who regards as a sign of weakness anything less than a confident, definitive response. This is the dynamic that leads many to preface responses with "I think that…" or "I believe that…". A more direct response might begin with "I can't provide a definitive statement on that. But I do know that the current consensus is…" or words to that effect.

If the current state of knowledge about the subject supports beliefs or opinions, but doesn't support a direct, definitive statement, then provide a direct, definitive statement about the current state of knowledge about the subject. Go to top Top  Next issue: Antipatterns for Time-Constrained Communication: I  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

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 Effective Communication at Work:

Ancient stairs at ruins in CambodiaThe True Costs of Indirectness
Indirect communications are veiled, ambiguous, excessively diplomatic, or conveyed to people other than the actual target. We often use indirectness to avoid confrontation or to avoid dealing with conflict. It can be an expensive practice.
A hug about to happenUnwelcome Workplace Hugs
Some of us are uncomfortable about workplace hugs, and some want to be selective. Sometimes hugs are simply inappropriate. Here are some tips for dealing with unwelcome workplace hugs.
An investigator from the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations interviews a witnessWhen the Answer Isn't the Point: I
When we ask each other questions, the answers aren't always what we seek. Sometimes the behavior of the respondent is what matters. Here are some techniques questioners use when the answer to the question wasn't the point of asking.
A 155 mm artillery shell is visible as it exits the barrel of an M-198 howitzer during trainingWhen the Answer Isn't the Point: II
Sometimes, when we ask questions, we're more interested in eliciting behavior from the person questioned, rather than answers. Here's Part II of a set of techniques questioners use when the answer to the question wasn't the point of asking.
A wall of stoneRed Flags: II
When we find clear evidence of serious problems in a project or other collaboration, we sometimes realize that we had overlooked several "red flags" that had foretold trouble. In this Part II of our review of red flags, we consider communication patterns that are useful indicators of future problems.

See also Effective Communication at Work and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A well-festooned utility poleComing June 26: Additive bias…or Not: I
When we alter existing systems to enhance them, we tend to favor adding components even when subtracting might be better. This effect has been attributed to a cognitive bias known as additive bias. But other forces more important might be afoot. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceAnd on July 3: Additive bias…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.

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.