How to say ‘I don’t know’ professionally
Last updated on: August 29, 2022
Unlike human ignorance, human knowledge is very limited.
No matter how much of an expert you are, it’s inevitable that there will be times when you don’t know something.
That’s normal — it happens to everyone.
We may even go down the Socratic path and say the only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.
However, in a professional setting, many people find saying ‘I don’t know’ embarrassing.
There’s not only a fear of leaving a bad impression, but also a worry that they will be ridiculed or not taken seriously.
If you feel the same, this article is for you. We’ll learn how to say ‘I don’t know’ while still appearing smart and professional.
Just follow our 6 simple tips!
Tip #1: Don’t pretend to know something you don’t
When you don’t know something, the first instinct is often to pretend that you do, in an attempt to avoid embarrassment.
Try to fight that urge.
Because, paradoxically, that can lead to much more embarrassment down the road.
If others figure out you actually have no idea what you’re talking about (which is not hard when someone is familiar with the topic), they won’t have a high opinion of your personality and skills.
Instead, admit you don’t have the information they’re looking for — using one of the phrases you’ll find in this article.
Tip #2: Be confident
Declaring that you don’t know something is not a comfortable experience, but you have to appear confident nonetheless.
Looking nervous and self-conscious makes others think you’re incompetent — even if everything you’re saying is correct.
In fact, a University of Melbourne research published in Science Daily found that self-confidence is a key determinant of workplace success. A survey done by Indeed came to the same conclusion, adding that 94% of respondents deem confidence “important” or “very important” to completing daily work.
As we can see, confidence is crucial for navigating your professional life — especially professional communication.
No matter what you’re talking about, own it. Speak clearly, have open body language, and look people in the eye.
However, don’t be too confident — we don’t want to wander into the area of the Dunning-Kruger effect.
What is the Dunning-Kruger effect and why should we avoid it?
- Confident, and
- Don’t know a lot about a certain subject — you may become the victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect.
It’s a cognitive bias that occurs when your lack of knowledge and/or skills in a certain area causes you to overestimate your competence.
For instance, when people think they know a foreign language after learning it for one month.
Another example is shown in a study where 42% of the employees in one software engineering company thought they were in the company’s top 5% performing employees.
According to the Decision Lab, individuals in the bottom 25% of any skill are typically the ones who overestimate themselves the most. They carry a “double burden” — being ignorant of the subject and being ignorant of their own ignorance.
I don’t think I need to go into detail about why you shouldn’t overestimate your abilities and how it can backfire. Just as we discussed in Tip #1, it leaves a really bad impression on anyone who is knowledgeable about the subject.
Even though you should be confident in yourself and your abilities, you should also be self-aware.
To combat this effect, it’s important to be open to constructive criticism and challenge your knowledge.
Tip #3: Say you don’t have that information — yet
We’ve covered the basics, so let’s get into the actual phrases you can use.
What to do when your manager or coworker asks you something you’re not sure about?
The first option is to let them know you don’t have the information they’re looking for — yet.
That is understandable.
Granted, there are some people who have numerous facts at the top of their minds available at all times like they’re a human encyclopedia. But, after a few stressful meetings and too much caffeine you’re probably not one of them — and neither is the person you’re talking with.
Saying something like this will do:
“I’m not sure — I have to check and I’ll get back to you.”
“Excellent question! I’ll look into it and let you know.”
“I currently don’t have that information, but I’ll update you as soon as I get it.”
“My team is currently finalizing the project, so I should have the answer by tomorrow.”
“Let me check — I want to make sure I give you accurate information.”
“I would need to consult my team/a coworker/higher authority.”
“Great question — I would need to reflect on this.”
“I can’t remember off the top of my head — I’ll have to check that out and let you know.”
🔸 Why does this work?
Using one of these phrases will give you time to find the information you need, while still keeping a professional demeanor.
Of course, don’t forget to get back to them when you find an answer.
If you disappear and don’t contact them again, results may vary.
Tip #4: Direct them to an expert on the topic
Some things are just out of your expertise. Or, you can even be asked about data you’re not authorized to access or share.
In that case, the best thing you can do is let them know who they can ask for help.
When you have a question, it’s best to hear the answer directly from an expert, right?
You can say something like this:
“I’m not sure, it’s better to ask Mark from Finances. He’s been working here for 7 years and he knows the answer to every question you might have.”
“To my understanding, this is how it works. But, Jane from Marketing can probably tell you much more, she’s really skilled in SEO.”
“That’s not my area of expertise, but I can ask Kevin from Sales.”
“I don’t have access to that information, but I would be happy to find you someone that can help.”
“My analytics show ________, but Anna can tell you the exact numbers.”
🔸 Why does this work?
With this approach, you essentially kill two birds with one stone — you seem helpful but you don’t have to actually do the work.
Tip #5: Say you need more information to give them the right answer
Some topics are more complex than others.
In such cases, answering questions is not as straightforward as “Yes”, “No”, or “Our budget for this month is [amount of money].”
You would need further context or additional details to be able to answer properly.
This gives you an opportunity to avoid answering on the spot and have more time to think/research — in the name of being responsible and wanting to be as accurate as possible, of course.
Say something along these lines:
“Could you share more about what you’re interested in/looking for, so I can give you the right answer?”
“That requires a bit more research first. What questions are the most important to you, so I know what to pay attention to the most?”
“There are several possible answers, I’ll need more information first.”
🔸 Why does this work?
Just as in Tip #3, using one of these phrases essentially buys you time to find out the answer. This is perfect for subjects that are more complicated, require a more detailed explanation, or have more nuances.
It’s important to note that this approach works when you need to double-check or brush up on a thing or two, not when you know nothing about the subject.
Tip #6: Admit you’re wondering the same thing
As the famous saying goes — if you can’t beat them, join them.
Say you’ve been wondering the same thing and you’re looking for an answer too.
You can word it like this:
“I’ve been wondering the same thing! I’ll look up the answer and get back to you.”
“Great question, I’ve been asking the same thing. Hope we’ll find out.”
“This interests me too — if I find the answer, I’ll share it with you.”
🔸 Why does this work?
By doing this, you take the pressure off yourself — you’re now someone who asks a question, not the one who provides an answer. You and the other person are now a “team” — and if you play your cards right, they may even give the answer to you.
However, if you want extra points, be the one who looks it up and gives the information to them.
Conclusion: Be honest, but sound professional
If you find yourself in a situation where you don’t know something you feel you should, resist the urge to act more knowledgeable than you actually are — others will probably see right through you.
Instead, you can either:
- Pick one of the phrases we offered and say it word for word, or
- Use our phrases as a guideline/inspiration and come up with your own ‘I don’t know’ alternative.
Not all phrases will fit all contexts — choose the one that fits your situation the best.
Whatever you end up saying, the gist is the same: be honest, but sound professional.
And when you add a pinch of self-confidence to that, you will successfully avoid a potentially embarrassing situation.
✉️ Have you ever been in a situation where you didn’t know something? What did you say, or what did you wish you had said? Would you add any phrase to our list?
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