Skip to content

When someone asks you for a rough estimate and you don't have one

McKinley Valentine — 3 min read
When someone asks you for a rough estimate and you don't have one
Photo by Chris Chow / Unsplash (It's a ballpark)

…for the love of god give them a number range, even if it's "it will take between an hour and two years" or "definitely no bigger than this room, that's the most I can narrow it down".

The scenario here is when someone says "just give me a ballpark figure" and you say "no honestly it could be anything". It's super frustrating when you have *literally* no clue and the better-informed person refuses to even hint at what the range might be. It's basically a failure of empathy. (This is part of my ongoing pet theory that most people's theory of mind* is badly underdeveloped.)

For example: if I ask how much a house costs in Brunswick, you would say, "it varies". You think everyone knows geeeeeenerally how much houses cost, because you know that. But I have no idea! I genuinely don't know (I do now, I asked) whether they're $100,000 or $5 million. My family never owned a house, I have never thought of owning a house, I have no framework for even guessing because I haven't had these conversations. I just know it's so much money there's no point thinking about it.

It's like an alien coming to earth and saying, "how big is a spider?"
"They can be lots of different sizes"
- yeah but those sizes are between almost invisible and about 30cm across. No spider is 6-foot tall. The alien doesn't know this! You cannot believe an alien doesn't know horses can't be 6-foot tall because everyone you interact with knows that.

Most people have a huge amount of assumed knowledge, based on their work, their schooling, the conversations they overheard as kids, etc etc. If someone asks for a ballpark figure, think of them as an alien who has never seen a spider before. Give them a range, even if that range is so wide that it seems (to you), to be providing no information whatsoever.

If you're trying to get a ballpark figure out of someone and they're refusing, what generally works is to suggest a range yourself - basically showing them exactly how unbelievably little you know about the topic.
"How long will this take?"
"It depends on a lot of things"
"But like, a week? a month?"
"Oh, no, like a few hours"

It's generally easier for people to correct something that's wrong than to answer into the blank void. (It's easier to edit than write from scratch.)

An understandable exception to this is when someone is giving you a $ estimate. Tradies can't safely give you a range because if they say "$500-$800", some customers will latch onto the lowest figure and get mad when it turns out to be $750. But you're often asking because you don't know if it's going to be a hundred dollars or $8000 and you don't want to waste everyone's time by making them come to your house when it's not even conceivably within your budget.

I don't think there's a solution here if you're the tradie (you don't want to give a high estimate either, because it might scare them off when the actual figure turns out to be much lower). But if you're the customer, you can suggest just the upper limit ("I couldn't afford if it was more than a thousand bucks") and they will usually say "oh lord no, we're talking a few hundred" or "ahhh honestly it could be around a thousand? hard to say, let me come and take a look" or "it wouldn't be less than $3000". And then you know.

This piece was originally published in The Whippet #54 – subscribe to get the next one in your inbox!

Unsolicited AdviceEQ & Interpersonal


Sign in or become a Whippet subscriber (free or paid) to add your thoughts.
Just enter your email below to get a log in link.