What’s So Bad About Saying “I Don’t Know?”
Faking it until you make it only goes so far. Embrace the unknown and further communication, you never know what you’ll learn.
The moment of fear
Imagine yourself in a company meeting, your manager is going around the room asking people for initiatives that can boost the bottom line. This was a spur-of-the-moment question, but everyone has been able to come up with some corporate filler to avoid instant death, your turn comes up though and you’ve drawn a blank. You say “I don’t know,” your manager presses a button, the floor underneath you opens, and you’re launched into the abyss never to be seen or heard from again. I say this facetiously, I would hope there’s no hidden pit under your conference room, but at times it feels this is the outcome if we say “I don’t know.”
It’s a battle for both parties, one who demands an answer and the other not wanting to look uninformed. For any question that is posed, you must have an immediate and absolute answer. There’s no time or space for contemplation and reflection. Often we mistake a lack of knowledge with a lack of intelligence or engagement. There’s this fear of rejection that comes with saying “I don’t know” or some derivative of it.
This extends beyond the workplace, sports, religion, parenting. Don’t allow yourself to be caught without an exact stance on every political issue, even ones that may not yet exist. The superintendent for our local school district recently resigned. I was asked by a neighbor what my thoughts are on the replacement process and candidates. I replied that I was not sure, I had not looked into it. Well, this caused quite the fury, he responded I needed to be more engaged with pertinent issues such as this, for the sake of our community. I understand his frustration, and what may not be obvious to him is that I share it, I was as blindsided by the announcement, as he was. The fact remains that I do not know what the hiring process is, nor am I acquainted with the candidate pool.
It would be easy enough for me to string together some buzz words as an answer, but where does that get us? The rapid-fire discussions of TV and radio, have crossed over into real-life conversations. Raising our hands and asking questions was always encouraged as children, at some point we decided that it’s only okay for children to ask questions. Nowadays we must have a hot take and become entrenched in that position. While it does make for entertaining TV, it does not lend itself to the dinner table or a passing conversation in the neighborhood.
There are certainly some that might rely upon “I don’t know” to disregard a topic. Those are not the people I’m referring to. They’ve already determined they don’t want any part of the conversation, why force it? It may be difficult to discern at first, but if you’ve received the same answer several times over, it’s time to cut bait.
A deeper understanding
Admitting that you don’t know something offers the opportunity for learning, for greater connection. Assuming the original question is coming from a good place with honest intentions, there’s a possibility for a true exchange of knowledge. This new information may set you on the path to delve deeper into the topic or set on a course for new interests.
As a parent, I receive a litany of questions from my daughters, that I need to first consider or that I flat out don’t know the answer to. It’s important to me not to discourage this curiosity, it will encourage a greater love of learning. I also do not want to misinform them, complex questions usually have complex answers. When our dog died, they wanted to know why? When I explained that it had been sick for some time and its body could no longer go on, they wanted to know why? I felt the need to answer them, in an honest fashion but also in a manner that was apt to their age. I simply said I don’t know the exact reason but I will find out and we can talk about it. Our timelines were a little off because I wanted a day or so, they figured I would take a couple of minutes. After some negotiating that involved ice cream, I bought myself the required time. In the end, it survived as an opportunity for us all to learn and more importantly to grow. Moments like these help to reinforce the bond between us, they feel they can come to me with questions and I’ll either know or find out. I become a true resource to them.
This doesn’t just work with children, as adults saying “I don’t know” gives us the opportunity to learn together. Going back to the meeting room example, a true leader would find ways to empower their team, have them come together and brainstorm. Rather than demanding that someone have an immediate answer to issues, ask what those issues are first. Compile a list of problems that are keeping you from an end result. Discuss them openly and constructively, you’ll find people more willing to engage and have a greater sense of ownership. I am sure we’ve all had the misfortune of working for a truly terrible manager that inhibits growth. Their one interest is in hearing how great their ideas and thoughts are. It is much more refreshing to work for someone that is knowledgeable but realizes they don’t hold every answer. Beyond that, they value the input that you offer and see worthy in curiosity.