Any guesses to what they may be? (Hint: it’s not, “I love you.”)
“I Don’t Know”
Think of the last time, outside of your own head, you said “I don’t know.” For me, it was in response to my significant other asking what I wanted for dinner last night. (A question most millennials struggle to answer.) In any event, I am guessing your response wasn’t at work or school – perhaps your answer was “I don’t know” and in that case you seem to have the concept down and can stop reading here. However, for everyone else, those three words are rarely uttered in comparison to the amount of times we respond to a question with a definitive answer.
There seems to be three leading thoughts as to why this is, one based in over-confidence, one based in fear and another tied to our childhoods. Let’s first look at how behavior taught to us in childhood can have a lifelong effect on our inability to say, “I don’t know.”
Our tendency to always provide an answer starts early. In a study, kids and adults were given an unanswerable question. For example, a researcher described a family car ride and did not mention music in the description. She then asked participants a question about the music the family listened to. After being asked this question, 75% of kids tried to provide an answer. One suggestion to the causation of this conditioning is, in school students are encouraged to try to answer a teacher’s question no matter if they know the answer or not.
The researcher, Amanda Waterman, development psychology researcher at the University of Leeds, provides this perspective:
“There’s a power differential between a child and an adult who’s asking them a question. And the child will feel that the adult is the person that has more of the power, and therefore perhaps they feel slightly disadvantaged. They feel like they want to show what they can do, and they don’t feel as comfortable admitting when they don’t know something.”
This conditioning has possible lifelong implications as in the same study, 25% of adults tried to answer the unanswerable question as well. The theory then would also apply in the dynamic of a boss with an employee. Or when dealing with someone above you on the hierarchical ladder, there can be a certain expectation that they should know the answer to your question.
There seems to be a social aspect of dialogs, where how you respond is affected by how you perceive the expectations of the person asking the question. So rather than it being about giving a direct factual answer, it becomes more about trying to work out the contexts surrounding why the question has been asked, and what you believe the asker wants from you. Which leads me to the next reasoning for our inability to say “I don’t know” – fear.
Traditional paradigms have taught us that in order to survive, we must know more than the next person. As we just covered, we have been conditioned that ‘success’ is somehow dependent on acquiring knowledge and recalling it on command. This has resulted in our behaving as though any gaps in this knowledge should be hidden at all costs.
At this rate you would think, “I don’t know” was the same phrase as “I’m stupid.” But Gunther Sonnenfeld a Partner at Novena Capital said it best:
“Ask yourself this: Is it possible that you might be asked something for which you don’t have an answer? Probably. Does anyone really expect you to know everything? Probably not. Do you expect yourself to know enough to never have to say I Don’t Know again? I should hope not. Because that will never happen. Nobody graduates saying I Don’t Know.”
So, if this is the case, that our success is tied to knowledge, yet everyone accepts that one person cannot know everything - we must embrace the unknown and replace fear with an eager sense of curiosity. (We will address helpful ways to do this in an upcoming post.) This will result in “I don’t know” acting as a passage to way forward – which is essentially all the inquirer is looking for.
Finally, we must address the ego. Shakespeare famously wrote “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” Herein lies the flaw of our minds, whether conscious or not they often get in the way of our ability to say, “I don’t know.” And the ease of availability of information today can give us a false sense of confidence in our own knowledge. Just because we can run a Google search, does not mean we are able to synthesize its output and make foolproof decisions by ourselves. This desire to “know all” can be even worse when we consider ourselves to be an expert on a subject. It results in much lower levels of self-doubt, higher levels of self-admitting lack of knowledge and a blunder of harmful implications for both parties. We can also struggle with confusing opinions for facts. Myths are a perfect example of this. Once an opinion or half-truth has been repeated, shared or otherwise multiple times we along with outward parties begin to believe it as fact (think fake news.)
Just in these few paragraphs it is already apparent there are many benefits to saying, “I don’t know.” However, if we are being honest this is the real world, and areas such as this often play out much differently. We will be addressing both benefits and consequences of saying “I don’t know” along with ways of delivering the somewhat ambiguous response in a future blog.
The next time you are faced with a question that you do not know the answer to, I hope you get excited. Because an opportunity to expand your mind and increase innovation has just landed on your doorstep.