I don’t know

“Being at ease with not knowing is crucial for answers to come to you”. – Eckhart Tolle

These three words are perhaps some of the most feared words in the business world.

No one wants to utter them. They conjure up visions of looking foolish, unprepared or incompetent. They bring about fear for most and raise personal insecurities as to if we truly know what we are doing or merely found out to be a fraud.

But what if I said they are perhaps the three most honest words in business that can be used? If spoken in a void, without any plan of action towards knowing accompanying them; they can often result in negative consequence. But is unknowing itself an inherently bad thing? I would argue it can be a valid answer dependent on how it is communicated.

I hold a high amount of respect for persons brave enough to use this phrase (I especially take note of it when interviewing someone to see how they handle the “not knowing” situation).

It takes a lot of guts to admit that you just do not have the answer. It is a phrase that exposes us personally and the limits of what we may or may not know to others. People will try all sorts of things to avoid using this phrase as “not knowing” is typically uncomfortable for most.

How many times have you sat and listened to someone dancing around a question, exploring the obvious or never really landing on an actual answer. It’s perhaps an even more painful thing to witness as we often delude ourselves that we are smart enough to sound smart. Sometimes a 2 minute response turns quickly into a 30 minute diatribe that in the end never really answers the question. Why do we do that to ourselves and others?

Wouldn’t we be better served to simply say “I don’t know the answer to that Bob, but let me look into it or talk with people XYZ and I will see if I can get you an answer immediately” (and then ACTUALLY do that). Would that not set an honest and open dialogue that shows that although someone might not know the answer, they are motivated to get a proper response. Wouldn’t “old Bob-O” see us as someone who is someone he can count on to get him information?

So, what about the opposite intentional use of “not knowing”? Using “I don’t know” as an passive-aggressive avoidance mechanism (which is among one of my pet peeves up there with “It’s not my job”). When someone utters this phrase like a “get out of jail free card” that absolves them of responsibility based on lack of knowledge. Do I still carry the same respect? No, I really don’t.

So how do we know the difference? For me, if not knowing is coupled with a plan of action, a desire to gain knowledge or flash of desire in a person to learn, that’s the difference for me personally. “I don’t know” … (but/however/but I will speak with/but let me do X to find out) is unknowing with a plan to gain knowledge. This shows me that someone seeks to grow and gain this new knowledge, even if just long enough to give guidance.

If the response is a flat “I don’t know” (insert a blank stare and chirping crickets here) that says to me “I don’t know the answer and honestly I don’t care to know the answer” as it carries no plan to gain some knowledge. With things like the internet, the ability to find similarities, contact others or abstract details we have a wealth of knowledge available to us. Just phoning a friend or colleague can sometimes lead us to at least a simple answer.

How comfortable are you “not knowing”? Do you follow-up a lack of knowledge with a plan of action to gain insight and relay information?

“Do not fear lack of knowledge. Fear false knowledge” – Leo Tolstoy
























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