If you are ever asked a question you don’t know the answer to, it is better to be honest than try to make something up, but sometimes you don’t want to say, ‘I don’t know.’ In this Parade article, Mindpath Health’s Erisa M. Preston, PsyD, provides other phrases that can be more meaningful than ‘I don’t know.’
When someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, it can instantly prompt flustered feelings. You might feel like you’ve been out on the hot seat, even if it’s freezing outside. And this type of interaction may leave you overthinking exactly how to respond.
For starters, there’s not much wrong with saying, “I don’t know.”
“I always recommend being honest when you don’t know something,” says Dr. Brittany McGeehan, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist.
However, you might want to be honest in a way that doesn’t involve saying those exact three words.
“Saying ‘I don’t know’ can shut down a conversation,” says Erisa M. Preston, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and Mindpath Health’s regional psychotherapy director in California. “This might be your purpose in saying ‘I don’t know,’ and if it is, by all means, use that phrase to set some boundaries. We don’t always have answers, or we don’t always want to continue a conversation, and that’s okay. However, using that phrase often stops someone from asking follow-up questions or engaging further.”
The good news is that you can definitely ‘fess up to not having an answer without simply saying “IDK.”
Phrases to replace saying ‘I don’t know’
1. “I’m not sure, but I can look that up for you.”
This simple phrase exudes curiosity and a desire to learn, often coveted in workplaces.
“This is a great way to acknowledge that you don’t have the answer off of the top of your head but still offer a willingness to find the answer,” says Hannah Yang, Psy.D.
2. “Great question. Why don’t we look into it together?”
Dr. McGeehan says this statement is great for people in leadership positions—in their homes or offices.
3. “I wonder the same thing.”
This phrase puts things into perspective—for you and the person with a question.
“Here, you are letting the other person know that you are both in the same boat, and you also have the same question,” says Holly Schiff, Psy.D. “It makes it feel more united and that you can join together to figure it out.”
4. “I’m not familiar with that, but I can find the information for you.”
A slight variation from number one, Dr. McGeehan loves this one for work-related head-scratchers.
5. “It depends on X, but the estimate is Y.”
Sometimes, your answer depends on items that are still to be determined. For instance, the price for a floor renovation may be contingent on the material a person chooses.
6. “It depends…”
If there’s too much unknown to give an estimate, cut number five in half and stick with “It depends.”
“Sometimes, we’re too quick to respond with an ‘I don’t know,’ and actually, we just need more information,” Dr. Yang says.
After using this phrase, Dr. Yang recommends asking a follow-up question.
7. “I need to think about it longer before I can give an honest answer.”
Dr. Preston says this phrase addresses the discomfort you may feel about answering a question.
8. “I’m not entirely sure, but I believe…”
Dr. Schiff says this phrase starts with a caveat that you don’t know. Still, it lets you provide your best guess. Use this phrase with caution and only when you really believe your best guess is a good one that won’t spread harmful misinformation.
9. “That’s a really good question.”
We don’t always have to be so hyper-focused on answers we don’t know during conversations.
“While you may not be able to offer the answer or give the information they were looking for, it does validate that the question they asked was a good and valuable one,” Dr. Schiff explains.
Dr. Preston also likes the idea of telling a person they asked a good question.
“You might not know the answer, but that does not mean it is not worth discussing,” Dr. Preston says.
10. “I’m not entirely sure, but I can direct you to someone who does know.”
You may not be the best person to ask, and that’s okay.
11. “That’s a great question. I’m curious why you’re asking it.”
“This is such a ‘therapisty’ way to evade a response,” McGeehan admits.
12. “I wish I had that answer for you.”
This phrase is packed with honesty and vulnerability.
“I recommend this response a lot to parents when their kids are asking big existential questions about topics such as death. However, if needed, I can also see it being used in a professional setting,” Dr. McGeehan says
13. “We can figure it out together.”
Dr. Yang says this phrase is handy in situations like not knowing how to assemble a piece of IKEA furniture.
What not to say when you don’t know something
Anything untrue or that unfairly passes the buck to another person. For example, McGeehan advises against phrases like, “This was so and so’s job to know the information, not mine.”
“This deferral of responsibility is childish and will negatively impact how other people see you in the workplace and your personal relationships,” Dr. McGeehan explains.
When to just say ‘I don’t know’
If it’s true and you’re comfortable using it, there’s probably nothing wrong with using the phrase, “I don’t know.”
“If you are ever asked a question that you don’t know the answer to, it is better to be honest than try to make something up,” Dr. Schiff says. “People will respect you for acknowledging the things you don’t know rather than pretending you do and perhaps giving inaccurate information and leading someone astray.”
Dr. McGeehan agrees, emphasizing that parents can use the phrase as a teachable moment.
“This honesty is beautiful in parenting because you are modeling that it’s OK to not know everything,” Dr. McGeehan says. “It teaches our children that when they don’t know something, they can always go out and find the answer themselves, which is a powerful lesson for a child. It will lead to resiliency and grit later along with a more trusting relationship with their parents.