This week’s episode of the very excellent Freakonomics podcast is a fascinating quest to understand why so many people – especially experts in interviews – begin their answers by saying “That’s a good question.”
Host Stephen Dubner looks at a couple of possibilities. Experts commonly learn to say “That’s a great question” in media training. Why? To buy a little time to think about their answer, or to bridge to a response that leads to a different topic. Some people may just say it out of habit or to flatter their interviewer. For others it is a genuine expression of admiration for the thoughtfulness of the question.
Dubner even talks to Charlie Rose about this phenomenon in a delightful little segment that also emphasizes the importance of preparing good questions to foster genuine interaction. Also, we learn to notice President Obama’s verbal tics (“Look…” and “Listen…”) when he think the question he’s being asked is not a great one! I highly recommend listening to the entire episode.
I think people often say “That’s a good question” as another way of saying “I don’t know”. How to say I don’t know is routinely one of the most popular segments of communication training I give to science communicators and policy advocates here in Asia and Africa. We’re all uncomfortable when we’re asked a question we don’t know the answer to, and experts most of all.
What I teach is based on the principles of risk communication, as I was taught years ago by Dr. Vince Covello.
1. Repeat the question, without repeating any negative allegations that may have been in the question. For example, if the question refers to a claim of danger reported in a new paper,
“You’ve asked me about…(a specific aspect of the safety of …).”
2. Say you don’t know.
“I wish I could answer that”
“My ability to answer that is limited by…(my expertise in a different area).”
“I don’t know”
3. Say why you can’t answer.
“We’re still looking into that.”
“I don’t have that information.”
4. Provide a follow-up, with a deadline if possible.
“I expect to be able to tell you more by….”
“I will ask the expert on that specific topic to respond to you....”
5. Bridge to what you can say
“What I can tell you is….”
Of course, you can always just say “That’s a great question” and then go on to bridge to another topic. The risk communication approach can still be a little awkward, requiring some practice beforehand and courage in the moment. But going through the step of explaining why you can’t answer the specific question that was asked -- and committing to follow-up with more information -- builds trust and credibility more than bridging directly to the answer you can give.