While I can’t say for certain, I’m guessing you’ve all had the experience of asking someone a question about a person, situation, or problem, only to hear, “I have no idea,” accompanied by an evasive shrug.

What I’ve realized-- as I’m sure you have, too-- is that, more often than not, “No idea” is, in fact, an invitation for further conversation; usually standing in for, “I have one but I can’t be bothered to/don’t want to/am too scared to tell you.”

In other words, this is definitely a discussion to which you want to RSVP.

So how can you begin to draw out these ostensibly idea-free people?

In moments like these I find it helpful to fall back on some of the techniques that worked when I was riding herd on twelve three-year-olds (who knew being a nursery school teacher would pay such dividends?):

First: keep a sense of humor.

This doesn’t mean treat it as less serious than it might be. What it does mean is that in the same way your kid isn’t going to tell you the truth if he or she thinks it will land them in trouble, people aren’t going to tell you what’s going on if they think they, or the person they’re speaking about, are going to end up in hot water. With this in mind, then, keep your face and tone neutral as you begin your delicate probe into what they might in fact be wanting or willing to tell you. No one responds well to someone who’s tensed up and ready to spring.

How can you ensure this—particularly when you are tensed up and ready to spring? Most importantly, don’t assume their withholding has anything to do with how they feel about you-- after all, it’s at least 50% possible that it has something to do with the person or thing about which you are asking. Keeping this in mind will help to keep your face neutral and your voice light. If you can muster up a tone of genuine inquiry, that’s even better.

Next, offer them some ideas about what you think might be occurring so they have something to object to (Remember the old warmer/colder game?) The reason for this is that it’s often easier for people to say, “It’s not that,” than, “It is this.” For instance, if you got a “No idea,” response to where a colleague is who’s just missed a meeting with you, you might say, “Do you know if he’s stuck at lunch? Had a family emergency?” At the very least, approaching it in this way narrows the scope of the inquiry.

It can also be helpful to articulate some of the reasons why you want to know. If, for example, you are trying to find out from one of your team why their colleague didn’t include the requested statistics in a report you were just handed, something along the lines of, “Is he having trouble finding them? Because if so I’ll put my assistant on it,” is likely to get you further than just, “Is he having trouble finding them?”

Additionally, you may want to spell out the lack of—or the in-fact—consequences of their not speaking up (depending on how that’s going to roll out.) So, if the circumstances aren’t dire this might sound like, “If I had a better idea of what was going on, I’d be able to strategize with you on a work-around solution,” or, if the stakes are nice and high, “Without a better idea of what’s going on, the entire project is in jeopardy—which includes our team.”

If you have the sense they are covering for someone else, it can also help to suggest they speak directly to the person in question. For example, “I understand if you want to check in with X. When you do, please tell him my goal is not to point fingers—what I’m after is a better understanding of the situation.” (Note, please: don’t, then, point fingers. Doing so erodes the possibility of ever being given critical information in the future.)

Finally—if you have the time—give them a framework and medium for following up with you: “I’d appreciate hearing more about what you know—or having X speak to me directly—by the close of business today. I’ll be in my office.” (FYI: under these circumstances, don’t mess around with email. If in-person isn’t possible, tell them a telephone call is necessary.)

As you can see, in the same way “No” should be treated as an opening position with the under six set, “I have no idea,” should just be treated as an opening statement when used by those around you.

Read Sample Scripts on my Blog @ francescolejones.wordpress.com

Frances Cole Jones

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