Tripping over words and being tongue-tied is one thing. Being stumped and exposed over not knowing the answer to a question is another.

Think about the snap judgments you make when listening to someone else. Ever find yourself thinking, “It doesn’t sound like he knows what he’s talking about. How did he even get that job?”

The way you handle tricky work situations conveys more than just your capabilities. Observers are also gauging the confidence you project in those moments — and gauging your competency accordingly. A deer-in-the-headlights look or an abrupt departure from the conversation casts doubts on your credibility and expertise. Responding in a truthful and gracious manner affirms your skills.

One conversation doesn’t prove you’re the best person for the job, but it does give others more information to make a judgment about you — and let’s face it, your talent and resume aren’t always as noticeable as your conversation skills.

Here are tips from professionals who ask and answer questions for a living on how to navigate instances when you get asked a question and don’t think you have a good answer.

Take a breath. Responding as if a game-show buzzer is about to sound won’t lead to the best or most confident sounding response. “If I’m being interviewed by a reporter, I take my time to answer the question,” says Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner. You control the clock in your conversations. Take a breath and reset before offering a response.

Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner takes questions after the Oct. 13 game against Cleveland. Wagner tells sports broadcaster Jen Mueller that he takes his time when answering questions during interviews. Controlling the clock in a conversation gives you time to come up with a quality response, Mueller writes. (Ron Schwane / The Associated Press)

Evaluate your expertise. “If it’s something really obvious that you should know as soon as you’re asked the question, that’s one thing,” according to Angie Mentink, an anchor with ROOT Sports. But putting pressure on yourself to know all the answers is unrealistic. Don’t avoid conversations because you’re afraid of getting stumped; rely on what you do know. “It’s OK to be vulnerable and admit you don’t know something,” says Mentink. “Just don’t be a dingbat.”


Become a problem-solver. The phrase, “I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you,” is an easy out — and a crutch for some people who really don’t want to answer on the spot — but it’s also a way to build rapport with colleagues. “Saying, ‘I’ll find the answer for you,’ opens the door for people to still come to me with questions,” Wagner says. “Even if I don’t have an immediate answer, I build trust by finding the answer.” Trust is built in little moments, like the short interactions we have every day.

Hedge, but with a twist. Even a nonanswer can include useful information. “Just because you’re not answering the exact question that [I] asked doesn’t mean you’re not providing insight or showing that you have some value,” says Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN radio. Take a page from the athletes and coaches she interviews as part of the Seattle Mariners broadcast team: “There’s a lot that can be learned from the process, so when they take that tack, I think it’s very helpful and gives me even more options to think about.”

Brevity is your friend. Comedian Craig Gass knows how to improv his way through any situation, but when he’s searching for the right response he knows less is more. “I find that words with a certain tone to them can be sufficient, like repeating, ‘That’s tough.’ Acknowledging the emotion can be enough without giving an actual answer,” he says.

Everyone experiences stress or anxiety over not having an answer, or the right answer, to questions. Being able to hold your own in those moments is part of being a good communicator and conveys more than the words you say.

Jen Mueller is the author of “The Influential Conversationalist” and a sports broadcaster based in Seattle. (Courtesy of Jen Mueller)