As Greek philosopher Socrates (reportedly) said, the true wisdom lies in knowing that we don’t know: being aware—and admitting—that there are things we don’t have knowledge about, questions we don’t know the answer to shows moral integrity and rationality. Nevertheless, finding a way to diplomatically admit our ignorance can be useful in certain circumstances, such as job interviews.
It’s likely that, during a job interview, you’ll be asked a question you don’t know how to answer. While it’s imperative that you don’t lie or start to aimlessly digress, it’s also important that you avoid bluntly saying “I don’t know”. Honesty is certainly commendable, but you don’t want to come across unexperienced or unprepared.
When you’re tempted to drop a hasty “I don’t know”, pause for a moment and think about the question asked. Taking a few seconds shows that you’re not impulsive and prefer gathering thoughts before talking. If you feel that your silence is becoming awkwardly long, think out loud and share your thought process with your interviewer—just make sure you don’t start rambling!
Sometimes, however, taking a moment to think doesn’t make a whole lot of difference: you may still feel that “I don’t know” is your only response option. Well, you shouldn’t admit defeat so easily. If you’re asked a knowledge question, such as “Do you know what program X does?” and you’re not familiar with said program, don’t give in too quickly with an ashamed “I don’t know”. Be strategic and accompany your “admission of ignorance” with something that can put you in a good light, such as “I haven’t had the chance to learn X, but I’m looking forward to acquiring that skillset” or “My knowledge about X is very limited, but I’m very eager to learn. Could you recommend any training sessions?” Answers like these help deflect the interviewer’s attention from your lack of knowledge and/or experience to your eagerness to learn new things.
Answering “I don’t know” is an even less viable option if you’re asked to provide an opinion or analysis about a certain issue. Although you may be unfamiliar with said issue, you’re asked to provide your personal insight, and while there may be more or less correct answers, what is appreciated here is your thought process and your ability to formulate opinions, on the spot, even about things you don’t fully understand or know.
Even in the most uncomfortable moment(s) of the interview, don’t forget you’re there advocating for yourself. Impulsively answering “I don’t know” doesn’t do you any good. Try to redirect your answer when you can: if you’re asked whether you know anything about X and you don’t, make sure to find a way to compensate for your knowledge gap. For instance, say that you have experience with Y and explain how that can make up for your lack of experience with X.
Lastly, after your interview, do some research and think about a better answer to the question that gave you a hard time. In this way, when you send the customary thank you email to the employer, you can throw in something like “I thought about your question a bit more and I wanted to add that…”, which will show your commitment to self-improvement