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Is it okay to say “I don’t know” in an interview?
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Sometimes “I don’t know” is the best answer you can give to an interview question. It gives you an opportunity to impress.

The question

Should I beat around the bush during an interview, or admit that I don’t know?

My answer

Short answer: Don’t beat around the bush; just say you don’t know and go find the answer.

“I don’t know” can be a great opportunity

“I don’t know” can be a very, very good answer and it presents an opportunity for you to demonstrate how focused and dedicated you are. If you say, “I don’t know” and then go find the answer after the interview, then you may have a later opportunity to demonstrate that now you do know and that you were curious enough to go find the answer even though you didn’t already know it.

If you beat around the bush and pretend you know something you don’t, the interviewer will probably detect that and it will reflect poorly on you. If they know enough about the topic to ask a question, then they know enough to detect when you’re beating around the bush. Think about how you feel when you ask someone a question, and they pretend to know the answer and give you bad information. That’s how an interviewer will feel if you beat around the bush or make up an answer.

If you say, “I don’t know. I’m writing that down so I can look it up later.” and then you follow through and follow-up, that can differentiate you from all the other candidates who beat around the bush or don’t follow-up later.

So beating around the bush and saying “I don’t know” both have the same goal: buy more time. But with one—beating around the bush—you only buy time to get out of the immediate situation without a clear positive outcome; with the other—saying “I don’t know”—you’re buying yourself time to go find the answer and demonstrating your competence in that area, leading to a positive result.

“I don’t know” can also a great tactic to build rapport with clients

Here’s and example that illustrates how powerful saying “I don’t know” can really be in your corporate life. When working with clients, I constantly run into things I don’t know. Each one of those things gives me an opportunity to demonstrate to the client that I’m the best person they can work with.

If I pretend I do know something I don’t, they’ll find out eventually unless I get very lucky. On the other hand, if I tell them immediately that I don’t know, then go find the answer and get back to them quickly, they have even more confidence in me. They think something like this: “He works really hard for us. Even when he doesn’t know something, he still finds the answer and gets the job done.” So it doesn’t matter what I do and don’t know—they are confident I’ll get the job done either way.

Sometimes the interviewer knows you don’t know

Some interviewers will ask you questions specifically because you don’t know the answer and they want to see how you respond in that situation. Sometimes the difference between a good employee and a great employee is that the great employee will run into obstacles and figure out how to get through them without the manager’s help. If you beat around the bush when you don’t know something, then there’s a chance you’ll do that when the stakes are much higher, and that can do real damage to the business. Managers want to know you’ll get the right answer in the end, regardless of whether you already know the right answer at the beginning.

If you’re still interviewing, you might benefit from “How to ace your next interview”—a free chapter from my book. You can get it here: How to ace your next interview. The chapter goes into a lot more detail about how to prepare for and excel at interviews. Or you can get the full book on Amazon: Fearless Salary Negotiation: Get it here. Good luck!