The Power of “I Don’t Know”

From the time that we are young children, our elders teach us that certainty is security. We are rewarded for knowing the answer that our teachers, parents, friends, and society at large expect. In uncertain times, people gravitate towards those who claim to have answers. It relieves anxiety to have someone confidently declare ownership of a solution.

It becomes a problem when people can’t admit ignorance for fear of appearing stupid or lazy or otherwise less than in the eyes of other people. The obvious danger is that the wrong answer can do a lot of damage. The other pitfall is that it stymies the pursuit of a more suitable one, potentially losing out on a brilliant solution.

The simple declaration “I don’t know” is incredibly powerful and sadly underused in a society that confuses information and knowledge. People are quick to believe the first article a Google search pulls up on their computer screen and are impatient with those who don’t “know” the same things.

In an odd way, there is comfort in acknowledging what we all know in our bones: that we don’t have much control over our circumstances, we only have control over our responses.

What follows “I don’t know” can be uncomfortable when you first start owning up to your ignorance. It’s hard to not look smart, to discover a personal limitation, or to hear bad news. But everything we know today is based on a courageous and curious ancestor who found a solution to a problem after admitting he or she did not know the answer.

“I don’t know” may not be the easiest sentence to utter, but it has distinct future benefits:

  • It shows that you are trustworthy and that people can have faith in your word.
  • It allows you to grow your knowledge and your network by doing the work to find the answer.
  • It helps avoid miscommunication and potential hassles born of relying on misinformation.
  • It allows for a novel, potentially groundbreaking, solution.

To be the most useful, when “I don’t know” comes up in conversation, it must be followed with “but I have an idea how to find out and I will get back to you.” It doesn’t promise the right answer, but it means you will pursue it. It is the pursuit that opens up a world of possibility.

So, the next time you are faced with a situation where you don’t know the answer, take it as an invitation to explore. Try out “I don’t know” and acknowledge the action you will take next. You may just stumble across an ingenious answer that changes everything.

 

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Jennifer Mallory
Jennifer Mallory founded New Tea Coaching and Consulting on principles from performance coaching and human potential research. She coaches thought-leaders to brilliance by helping them marshal their unique abilities to “skate where the puck is going.”