Sometimes the simple career questions are the hardest to answer. Here’s how to reply to one of the worst.

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Seemingly innocuous questions can be like kryptonite to a professional looking to transition into a new role or career.

These are the landmine questions, the gotchas, the facile questions that cause you to stumble and lose confidence at events, happy hours, skip levels and networking coffees. I call them Dreadful Questions.

Over the years as a career coach, I’ve collected six Dreadful Questions. I’ve written here about the First Dreadful; this column is about the Second Dreadful:

“So, what kind of work are you looking for?”

Seems like a straightforward question. But what if you don’t actually know what you want to do next? Or what if you feel like an impostor saying it out loud? What if they laugh? Or shake their head in bemusement and judgment?

What if you start to answer and then stumble around trying to articulate what you want to do? What if you don’t know the answer?

I like to tell my clients that they have permission to say “I don’t know!” when they’re asked the Second Dreadful, but their answer has to be prettily wrapped and tied in a bow.  It is personally empowering and professionally productive to sound intentional and thoughtful with your response.

For example, a Second Dreadful answer could sound something like:

“That’s a great question, and I’m taking the time to really think through my next steps. I enjoy [blah] and [blah], and I’m exploring how I can leverage my success as a [blah blah] into a role with more scope and responsibility. I’m really excited to talk through what ideas you might have about where someone with my skills and background could add value.”

All of which is another way to say, “I have no idea!” while subtlety flattering the other person, eliciting new ideas and sounding intentional about your process even if you’re flailing inside.

No one needs to know you’re flailing, I tell my coaching clients. And preparing a careful answer – even if it is “I don’t know!” – ensures you project a calm, confident exterior as you figure out the next steps in your career.

“What kind of work are you looking for?” seems like such a simple question.  And kryptonite looks like a pretty green rock.