The Power of "I Don't Know"

Posted by Q McCallum on 2013-11-20

Why “I don’t know” is a powerful phrase

Eric Sammer (@esammer) recently dropped a blog post on how to stay open for the sake of learning. The core problem, he says, is insecurity: people are afraid to look dumb, so they crank up the ego and lose out on teachable moments.

It’s the sort of post that companies should print, frame, and hang in several places throughout the office. Maybe even put it in the new-hire welcome kit as required reading. You get the picture.

Eric’s post resonates with my firm belief in, and approach to, lifelong learning. The first step is to recognize a void in one’s knowledge, which means to silence one’s ego long enough to say “I don’t know” and then have the guts to follow up on it.

I’ve been lucky: I move in professional and social circles with people who are similarly curious, people who are eager to explain what they know, people who want to hear what others know. We are all problem-solvers. We like to analyze, understand, and fix things. (Well, we “tweak with the sometimes failed expectation of improvement.” Close enough.) That means we have to know a lot across a broad range of subjects. Our greatest skill is learning how to learn and learning from each other makes for a powerful mix.

This has been my norm for so long now, I often forget that some crowds see “I don’t know” as a sign of weakness. The know-it-alls don’t get it. They’re so busy posturing that they fail to see the power of the phrase:

  • It opens doors: Declaring “I don’t know” in a group setting opens the door to exploring a problem as a team. “I don’t know; let’s take a look” defuses the ego-bomb that typically brews in meetings, freeing the group to focus on finding a solution.

  • It promotes growth: As a leader, saying “I don’t know” gives others a chance to shine and grow. “I don’t know, but it seems you have an idea… Walk me through it.” It sends a clear message that I do not have all the answers, nor should I.

  • It stops trolls: Another curse of the professional realm is the number of people who simply want to play “stump the chump” when they pose questions. Declaring your ignorance will deflect the attack: “Should I use Hadoop?” 1 “I don’t know. Tell me more about what you hope to achieve …”

All in all, “I don’t know” is a powerful phrase and a necessary first step to learning. Use it. You may be surprised what happens next.

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  1. or Python, or R, or anything else. Yes, people sometimes ask me such such broad, open-ended questions yet expect very cut-and-dried answers. ↩︎