Four in-depth ways to answer an interview question you don’t know the answer to

11 Mar 2015

We’ve all been in an interview where we’ve been asked a question we simply don’t know the answer to. It is a fact of life that interviewers will create all sorts of topics and ideas to quiz you on and that, one day, they’ll find something you just can’t answer.

Don’t despair though. Remember: you wouldn’t be at the interview if they weren’t interested in you in the first place and, particularly for partner-level positions, a small gap in your knowledge shouldn’t be a deciding factor.

You do, however, need to think carefully about how you respond. Trying to hide the fact that you don’t know could be even worse for you than the fact that you don’t know in the first place. Consider the following approaches, if you find yourself stumped.

 

Full disclosure: I don’t know and this is why I don’t know

Honesty really is the best policy in these situations. If you really don’t know anything about the sort of thing you’re being asked, then it is best to accept that that is the case. There is more you can discuss during your answer, as per the below suggestions, rather than just saying ‘I don’t know’.

Consider first of all explaining why you don’t have any knowledge of the topic, if there’s a tangible reason behind it. If you’ve been asked about corporate law, for example, when your C.V. clearly states that you have worked on family law all of your life, then it is worth drawing the interviewers attention to this.

Rather than ‘I don’t know’, perhaps introduce the fact that it has been a while since you worked on that side of things (‘I think the last time I worked on corporate was back in law school, I’ve been so focused on family since then’) or explain why you were never involved in them (‘we were just so busy in the family department…’). Both of these things may well turn a potential negative into a positive.

 

Discuss how you’d obtain the knowledge you’re lacking

Another way of further developing a narrative around something you can’t answer is to talk about how you would normally solve the question or problem being posed if you came about it in your day-to-day work.

Suggesting that you’d ‘get someone else to handle it’ perhaps isn’t the way to go, but discussing the idea that you would ‘get the team involved, so I could gather the opinion of those with more experience’ can show a great deal of positivity towards overcoming challenges.

If it is something you’re aware is a weak point then perhaps you have an option to bring up the fact that you will be addressing your knowledge gap through further training.

 

Work out what they’re really looking for and give it to them

Though you might not know the answer to the question in a literal sense, some questions are designed by interviewers to assess your knowledge of a general area of interest, or to assess character traits. Looking beyond the question here is key.

Try to assess what the interviewer is really interested in, given the question they have just asked. You might not be able to answer the specifics of it, but are they really asking about an overall topic? Try to reframe the question back to the topic if this is the case. If they’re referencing a case you have limited knowledge of, perhaps you know of one that is similar and will ultimately provide evidence of the same knowledge.

 

‘Can I come back to you on that?’

This is perhaps a final resort, but there is nothing worse than leaving the question on a ‘I don’t know’. If you have to, admit that you don’t know but ask if you can do some research around the topic or question and come back to the interviewer with your answer.

This not only gives you the option of understanding the question to a fuller extent but also allows you to provide a written response in far greater detail than you might have been able to in an interview situation.

Again, it’s not ideal, but it is a good way to show that you’re dedicated and willing to progress your knowledge.

 

 

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