Why ‘I don’t know’ can be the smartest answer

Why ‘I don’t know’ can be the smartest answer

By Stephanie Vozza

Ignorance may be bliss, but saying “I don’t know” out loud is often hard to do. It can be especially difficult if you’re in a position of leadership and your team comes to you for answers. However, saying “I don’t know” can actually be empowering if you reframe the concept, says Lizette Warner, author of Power, Poise, and Presence: A New Approach to Authentic Leadership.

“Any statement that starts with ‘I don’t know’ means that you’re open to knowing and it leads to discovery,” she says. “‘I don’t know’ is the first path to wisdom. It’s what leads to innovation.”

To get better at saying “I don’t know,” Warner says you have to get worse at saying “I do know.” For example, in a study conducted at Yale University, researchers asked people if they knew how everyday tools such as a zipper or toilet work. The majority of people said they did. However, when asked to explain how something works, few people had actual knowledge of the process. Researchers call this an “illusion of explanatory depth.”

“When you get worse at saying ‘I do know,’ then you kind of expect there will be so much you don’t know and you’ll become more open to knowing and figuring it out,” Warner says.

Take the Focus Off of You

If you’re struggling to say “I don’t know,” Warner suggests digging deeper to find the source of your discomfort. You may find some difficult memories connected to not having the answers, which often stem back to childhood and an experience at school.

“I get this memory of me in third grade, standing in front of the class with people staring me down,” Warner says. “My shoulders start to tighten, my throat constricts, and I start to tell myself these terrible stories like, ‘They’re going to think I’m stupid.’ All of that resurfaces anytime I have an ‘I don’t know’ moment.”

When you’re comfortable saying “I don’t know” in a calm and steady voice, however, your audience will follow your lead by listening and leaning in. Warner says the key is to focus on the question rather than on your response.

“When you start to challenge yourself, then the focus isn’t on what you do or don’t know; it’s on you,” she says. “That’s the start of the spiraling. Get the focus off of you and your memory of third grade and put it onto the object. It changes the whole experience.”

Look for a Partnership

When you tell someone “I don’t know,” the question becomes a joint investigation and a communal activity, Warner explains. You’ve indicated that you’re open to learning and thinking about something together. “You’re now soliciting participation from others, and people are almost always willing to go along with you,” she says. “They’re looking for that leadership.”

Instead of believing that leaders are the sources of answers, Warner says to shift your mindset to looking at leaders as the searchers of answers. “As a leader, you are modeling how to handle an ‘I don’t know’ moment. You’re teaching everybody on the team that this is okay to do because leaders don’t have all the answers, but what they do have is a team. When you have a team, you’re super powerful because you’ve got different perspectives. Think out loud with the team.”


“I Don’t Know” Takes Poise

Warner says the ability to say “I don’t know” takes poise. “Poise is this balance and ease to stay calm in the middle of uncertainty,” she says. “I think the uncertainty is what drives a lot of us and makes us uncomfortable. We have this belief that poise means we’ve got it all together.”

But that’s not the case. Warner says poise is battling furiously in one area of your life while you glide easily in another. “Poise has both an effort and an ease quality to it,” she says. “The ‘I don’t know’ is part of poise because you have to hold space for knowing and also not knowing. Then you’re also capable of knowing what resources you have around you.”

Fast Company