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dont know the answer

“I Don’t Know the Answer”

Those who said “I don’t know (the answer)” are put to the top of the list.

There’s a private school in Glasgow just a few miles from our studios.

Every year, the school tests children aged four, to assess their personalities prior to offering them a place.

It asks questions, with which any four year-old would struggle.

“What’s the capital city of China?”

“How many loaves are in a baker’s dozen?”

The answers are separated into two piles.

Those who answered “I don’t know” and those who just guessed.

Those who said “I don’t know” are put to the top of the list for places.


Because giving that answer is seen as a barometer of confidence.

Here’s how you can use “I don’t know” to demonstrate confidence to those around you.

Everyone gets it wrong sometimes

Boy or girl don't know answer confidence glasgow.

“She was livid”.

The words of an ultrasonographer, Nicky, I met last week at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow.

My wife and I were there for a routine scan, as we look forward to welcoming our second child into the world in June.

I asked Nicky if she had ever wrongly predicted the sex of the baby.

“Once, when I had just started”, she said.

“I was 99% sure, and congratulated the couple on the fact they’d be having their first boy”.

“But when they came back in for blood test the next week, I realised I’d got it wrong”.

It turned out the couple had already received gifts, bought clothes and started painting the baby’s room blue.

“I should have said “I don’t know”, but I’d trained for the job for 10 years. I should have known”.

Why we fear saying “I don’t know”

don't know answer confidence glasgow girl on train.

  1. We fear we look stupid
  2. We believe we should know
  3. It can be used against us
  4. It leaves an awkward silence

The above are just a few reasons why people tell us they fear saying the dreaded words, “I don’t know”.

Those on public speaking engagements are worried about how it sounds when you have 200 pairs of eyes on you.

They’ve taken time out of their busy schedules to listen to an expert, and you don’t know the answer?!

Those giving media interviews are worried about a journalist turning “I don’t know” against you to make you look stupid.

And many of us fear the internal presentation in the Boardroom, where our boss demands the answer.

“I don’t know” can sound, well, amateurish.

How to use “I don’t know” to your advantage

don't know answer confidence glasgow i don't know man with question mark on head.

I’m sure we can all agree that we’d rather avoid annoying people by guessing the answer, only for it to be wrong.

Worse still, you could lose credibility.

Or your job.

What you know is a drop in the ocean versus what you don’t know.

And being upfront about that can help influence those around you.

Here are some examples, with variations of “I don’t know”.

Q – “How many projects were completed on time last year within your department?”

A – “I don’t know. We ran over 25 large-scale projects at the same time in Edinburgh alone. I’ll find that out and get straight back to you. What I do know is that timeliness is one of the key areas we’re focusing on in 2018”.

Q – “How much money did this campaign raise?”

A – “I’m unsure of the specific amount, as it was completed only this week. I believe it was over a million, but let me check that and get the exact figure to you”.

Q – “If you win this bid, when will the work be completed, and how much will it cost?”

A – “It’s too early to say on both fronts; that will depend on further consultation on what you wish to achieve. What I can say is that, regardless of the scope of the project, we’ll be determined to complete it on time, on budget”.

Each answer is comprised of three parts:

  • A direct answer (“I don’t know”, “I’m unsure” or “it’s too early to say”);
  • A short explanation that qualifies the answer (“that will depend on further consultation”);
  • A solution (“let me check and get back”);
  • Extra information, which allows you to retain control and give the audience the benefit of your experience.

Doing all of that takes confidence.

And like the prospective pupils, that’s exactly what you’re demonstrating.

To find out more about answering difficult and direct questions, check out “Communicating under pressure: Answering difficult questions” a training blog we published last month.

Do you have any questions, or want to learn more?

Get in touch with one of our trainers by completing this form, we will respond the same business day.

We are always here and happy to help.

Andrew McFarlan is the Managing Director of Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

You can view his full profile here.

Photo credit// Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash // Photo by Conner Baker on Unsplash // Photo by Jad Limcaco on Unsplash //

19th February 2018 Featured in: Blog By:

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