Secret #10: Repeat After Me: "I Don't Know."

Congratulations! You did your homework, organized your thoughts, clarified your point of view and figured out what it was the group at the meeting needed to hear. You rehearsed out loud, took constructive criticism and made adjustments. You practiced relaxing, increased your confidence and nailed your part of that important meeting! At the very end, as you triumphantly sipped your water, the Senior VP of Marketing asked you that one-in-a-million question you were not prepared to field. When you regained consciousness you wondered,
You: What happened?
Me: Looks like you let an unexpected question throw you. It threw you on the floor, actually.
You: I should have known that answer! How could I have been so stupid?
Me: It isn’t a question of ‘stupid.’ You were well prepared. You can’t know the answer to everything. What you just experienced was a very important lesson!
You: What I just experienced was a swan dive into industrial carpeting. I still have the pattern on my forehead!
Me: There is an old Russian proverb that goes like this, ‘There is no shame in not knowing; the shame lies in not finding out.’
You: Where I come from we have a saying, too. (makes hostile gesture)
Listen, I’m not advocating that anyone be unprepared. Developing a solid understanding of the material is a basic and essential part of speaking with authority and confidence. What I am saying is that it is unrealistic to believe that we can know everything. I know a guy who acts like he does, and I tell you, he’s a terrible bore. (Actually, I’ve met many more than one person like this—you know the kind—the authority on everything.) The truth is, you can’t know it all and no one expects you to. The people I admire most and who are considered the experts in their respective fields are, without exception, quick to say when they don’t know something. They have become well-respected as a result of their curiosity and their understanding that there is always more worth knowing.
It’s sort of like the menus at diners.
You: Uh-Oh…
Me: Bear with me.
A typical diner menu has about seven laminated pages of itemspasta, chops, “fresh” fish, burritos, burgers, buffalo wings, matzo ball soup, Chinese chicken salad, spinach pie, beef stroganoffyou get the idea. All I can think when I look at those menus is, they can’t possibly be good at all of this. I’ll get the tuna melt. A fine restaurant, however, offers a one-page menu with only a few selections that represent the items the restaurant considers specialties. Know-it-all people are a lot like diner menus. They know a little about a lot of things, but rarely know any of them well.

Worse than panicking is trying to fake it. I can’t think about this without reliving the horror of the 2007 Miss South Carolina moment—a worst-case scenario. I don’t expect any of us would come out with a sentence like, “I believe that our education, like, such as the Africa and the Iraq, everywhere like such as, and I believe that they should, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S. …” It, of course, goes on but I can’t.

There is a graceful way to deal with questions to which you don’t have the answers and to respond with your integrity intact. (Who will remember anything else about Miss SC?)

When you don’t have the answer, say so. Why not be generous, and commend the asker for the quality of the question? If applicable, ask that person to clarify what they’re asking. At that point—you crafty devil—the attention leaves you and turns to the questioner, where it belongs. Let them know you’re intrigued by the question, that you’ll look into it and get back to them quickly (and be sure you do). Then, ask if there are more questions and jump right back on track. Doesn’t that sound better than winging it? People generally know when you’re faking and that can destroy the credibility of all you said before (making you look more like a diner menu than the plat du jour).

Besides, no matter how carefully you attempt to prepare for all possible questions, there will be that one that just never made it on the radar. It’s best not to kick yourself in these situations. Instead, do your best to be prepared and expect that someone may come up with something you haven’t thought of. You can actually plan for it and rehearse responses. A person who stays composed and shows interest in the question he or she is posed gets my vote of confidence.

By now, you’re probably noticing that these secrets are, in one way or another, about giving ourselves a break and quieting the interference that detracts from our chances at doing a job we can be proud of. They’re not a list of things to do, but a way of thinking that sets us off in a better direction.

“He must be very ignorant for he answers every question he is asked.” —Voltaire