I was sitting in a meeting earlier this year listening to a particularly charismatic CEO address all the officers of a Fortune 500 company. At the end of the presentation, he opened the session up to questions from the officers. As questions poured in, I realized that I was sitting next to a particularly challenging question asker (yes, that’s a word. I know, I was surprised too).
My neighbor was hurling intense and challenging questions at the CEO from the back of the room and, at times, interrupting the speaker to add additional questions. Finally, the individual asked a particularly difficult question and the CEO responded, “You know, that’s a good question and I don’t know the answer to that.”
Period. He did not offer to follow-up. He did not offer to take on additional work to flush out the answer. He did not apologize. He gave an honest answer. We moved on.
I instantly l liked him more than I had 30 seconds ago. In my life at corporate law firms I cannot recall any instance where the leadership used the phrase “I don’t know.”
When I was leading a practice, one of the biggest red flags for me was when someone I was working with would refuse to simply say “I don’t know.” In my past, I have worked with seasoned attorneys who, rather than say IDK, would tap dance around the issue offering all sorts of manufactured legal support. At first, I trusted their commentary and ran off on a fool’s errand trying to find the support for what they were telling me. Eventually, I realized that they didn’t know the answer and were just manufacturing legal guidance.
It’s one thing to theorize and say you are theorizing, it’s another thing to answer a question with authority and references to legal support when you have no idea what you are talking about. Within the team, it became a running joke. We all knew when she was going out of her way to avoid saying IDK and we all expressed our irritation for all the time and energy we spent trying to find support for what she was saying. In the end, no one trusted her judgment and we stopped asking her opinion. All because she refused to say those three little words.
Why do people refuse to acknowledge when they don’t know something?
Because they are trying to manipulate you.
Hear me out. When someone is deliberately avoiding those words, it is because they want you to believe that they know. They want you to believe they are knowledgeable in all things. They want you to trust their judgment and their opinions. The common theme here is this:
They want you to think about them in a certain way.
If that is not manipulation, I don’t know what is. Now, I am not saying that these people are intentionally being manipulative. I actually believe that the manipulative element of these interactions is simply a byproduct of a larger issue. That issue is their own damn mind.
When people are afraid to own that they don’t, in fact, know everything, they are making “I don’t know” mean something negative about themselves. Often times, when people say, “I don’t know.” Their brain erupts with thoughts of shortcomings:
I should know this. I’m an idiot for not knowing that. How could I not know that?! What is wrong with me? This person is going to think I’m dumb. If I don’ t know this, they are going to think I’m not good at my job.
They make not knowing, mean something horrible and negative about themselves. So rather than have those thoughts and think those feelings, they run in the opposite direction and throw a bunch of BS at the problem. The net results are this…
When asked a question, a person thinks, I should know the answer to this; if I say “I don’t know” they will think I don’t know what I’m talking about. So, the person offers all sorts of answers and sends the other person on a hopeless quest. The end result is that the original inquirer eventually concludes: They have no idea what they are talking about.
The net result is the exact result the person was trying to avoid!! It’s pure futility!
As practice group chair, one of the things I always told young attorneys was this: If you don’t know the answer to something, say so. Don’t waste my time and yours trying to act like you do. I will find out and I will trust you less thereafter.
Honesty builds trust and helps relationship flourish. Do not make the same mistake my past partner made. In the end, she lost a lot of credibility and isolated herself. Being able to recognize that you don’t know something demonstrates confidence. How do you get there? Try on these thoughts:
No one expects me to know everything.
I can be humble and honest and admit when I have more to learn.
It’s okay if I don’t know everything; I am always learning.
I value honesty in my working relationships.
I am not perfect or all-knowing.
I am willing to admit when I don’t know something.
Those thoughts are going to get you so much farther than thinking:
I’m an idiot if I don’t know the answer to this.
I should have researched that!
How could I not have checked that?!
They are going to think I am dumb if I say I don’t know.
The next time you catch yourself trying to avoid saying, I don’t know, try on one of these thoughts and see how different honesty feels.
Thought work is powerful work. It is simple but it’s not easy. Coach with me and learn how to better manage your thoughts for greater success in your life and your career.