“No Idea” Means I Have One
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.

Sample Script: Making it Conscious, Not Confrontational
The set up: You and your team are working together on a presentation that’s due in less than twenty-four hours. As the deadline gets closer, you notice one of your team members is repeatedly stepping out to take calls—calls that, in addition to breaking the flow of work, also appear to be making others in the room extremely uncomfortable. As this is a team member with whom you’ve had several, well, let’s call them “spirited conversations” in the past, you’re wary of speaking to him directly without doing a bit of a background check first. When you ask one of your colleagues what’s going on, however, he responds, “I have no idea.” At this point, I recommend the following:

You: (Keeping your face and voice neutral and having reminded yourself this has, at best, a 50% likelihood of having something to do with your past interactions) “I was asking because if he’s got a family situation, I want to reassure him we’re can all double up to help him out if his attention has to be elsewhere. But if it’s work-related, I’d like to know more so we can all put our time to better use.”

Your colleague: “I think it has something to do with the project.”

You: “OK. Well, if it’s going to impact his ability to meet the deadline, we’re all affected. I’m happy to speak to him directly when he returns—or do you want to relay my concerns outside the room, and ask him how he wants to proceed?”

As you can see, offering a number of choices at every turn allows those involved to retain some measure of control, which is essential to keeping the situation from escalating.

Sample Script: Taking It On the Road
The set up: You’re on the road for a business trip and notice when you call in that your staff seems to be off their game: requests are getting dropped, and there’s significant lag time attached to those being handled. You have an idea about who might be causing the internal disruption, but want to get some facts in-hand before speaking with her directly so you decide to check in with one of her team members first. When asked what’s been occurring, however, she says, “I have no idea.”

You: (Remembering that tonality is particularly important when you’re problem-solving by phone, and so, keeping your tone reassuring—or at least neutral.) “I ask because my recent requests have been getting dropped or delayed, and I’m trying to get a better sense of what’s at the root of it. If there’s a genuine problem brewing, I’m happy to help trouble-shoot. If it’s just an exacerbation of the usual internal dissension, I can handle it more pro-actively if I have facts about what’s occurring.”

Your employee: “Well, you know X is always the one who….”

You: “I’m going to interrupt you here. The critical thing is for me to have facts, not a character review. Can you give me data about what’s been going on?”

The choice to stay in a very black and white world of facts and figures is important for keeping the trust of all team members—and is particularly relevant when you’re operating at one remove. He said/she said is excruciating anytime. Doing it telephonically or via email is a recipe for disaster.

Frances Cole Jones
Watch the video version of this post here.