What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say

During your weekly department meeting, in front of 30 of your employees, one asks, “So, what are the Profit/Loss margins for this month?” Your palms start sweating, your heart races, and your mind goes blank. What do you say?? STOP. Before you answer an important question like this, take a moment to collect your thoughts. There are plenty of circumstances where you’ll find yourself put on the spot.

what to say when you don't know what to say

But speaking without thinking could cost you your credibility – or worse, your career. For senior managers and C-level executives, these tricks to wiggle out of a tough situation will save you every time. Try these phrases when you find yourself scrambling to think of what to say when you don’t know what to say.

The Situation

While you’re chatting with your employees at the coffee machine, a colleague stops you in the hallway, and asks you for information about a touchy situation – one that shouldn’t be discussed in public.

“Let’s schedule a meeting, and we can discuss this later.”

Sometimes, employees don’t realize that their question might be wildly inappropriate for a public forum. Others might be strategically plotting to ask a question in an open setting, and trying to trick you into answering on the spot.

Of course, try to give your co-workers the benefit of the doubt here, and assume the best. But no matter what, don’t feel bullied into answering a question about a difficult subject. Deflect the initial question by offering to schedule an appointment with your colleague, where you can better explain the subject.

This will buy you time to decide how to handle the conversation – does this employee need to know about the situation? Do you have all the facts straight? Are you allowed to share this info? In a private setting, one-on-one, you’ll have a better grip on how to answer their questions.

The Situation

You’re working on a project with an employee, when they suddenly inquire about a certain business process. One that might be common knowledge. The answer has slipped your mind.

“I’m not sure, but let’s find out.”

Popularized by employees of Apple, a paragon of excellent customer service, this answer is a humble way to admit that you’re unsure of the answer. However, it also shows a positive attitude, and you can convey your enthusiasm for learning.

Simply shrugging off the question will make you appear ignorant, or unmotivated to understand your organization. But turn it into a learning opportunity for both of you, and you can simultaneously preserve your credibility while becoming more knowledgeable about your company.

The worst possible answer is a wrong one. If you panic and spit out the first thing that comes to mind, it’ll be easy for the employee to check your facts. Blurting out a wrong answer makes you look nervous, unreliable and untrustworthy. It’s better to admit that you aren’t sure, than to say something that’s factually incorrect.

The Situation

During a routine meeting, your employee asks you about a topic that you’re not allowed to discuss – perhaps whether their job is safe, or if they’re going to be receiving their bonuses this year.

“Let me start with what I do know…”

Certain subjects can be truly tough. When your employee is looking for answers to big questions, they expect the truth. There’s a lot to be said for transparency but sometimes, you just can’t provide them with a satisfactory reply.

The key to handling these confrontations is to provide them with as clear a picture as you’re capable of offering. For example, if they inquire about downsizing rumors, answer candidly. “I can’t speak to the rumors that have been circulating, but let me start with what I do know.

The last quarter was hard on the company, and we are discussing the budget. However, I can tell you that as soon as we find out more information, we’ll address it with you and the rest of the company immediately.”

Do not lie. Do not hem and haw. Be direct and straightforward about the current state, but make sure to leave it just vague enough to prevent speculation. An employee in a state of unrest will latch on to any potential “clues” that they discern from your answer.

Avoid words like “restructuring, budget cuts, problems.” Otherwise, you may start a wave of panic throughout the office. By showing your employee your openness and authenticity, and projecting the idea that you want to be as honest as possible, you will earn their respect and trust.

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