It’s Okay to Say “I Don’t Know”

2009 May 2
by Grace Boyle

I was reading through Eric Friedman’s Marketing.fm blog on the intersection of marketing and technology when I saw his blog post, “I Don’t Know.” I paused and pondered this. Such a simple phrase. It can be embarrassing and denotes uncertainty but you know what, it’s authentic.

I’ve been asked tough questions professionally and personally, when the person expects an answer. I usually rack my brain but sometimes, I just don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t have an answer.

Eric says, “saying I don’t know can be one of the smartest, empowering, and most liberating things you can say…I have seen people stumble through a bad answer or try to piece together a coherent thought when the clear answer to a question should be I don’t know.”

I will be honest, I have pride. Although I don’t think I have an answer for everything, when someone takes the time to ask me a question, I know they have put a level of trust in me and I want to answer it properly. I will say this, however, I never bullshit an answer. I know it or I think about it and answer to the best of my ability–but if I can’t, I say I don’t know. It doesn’t make me weak or helpless. I agree with Eric and believe that, “it is harder to say, ‘I don’t know’ as it takes a tough person to admit that.”

Do you think resorting to an honest answer, even if it’s a let down to say “I don’t know,” takes strength? How often do you find yourself saying, I don’t know?

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  • http://www.opheliaswebb.com Elisa

    This exact thing is what made me the queen of post-it notes in my office. As a manager who's answers are going to be held as gold I had to learn quickly that I had to use the phrase, “You know, that's a really good answer that I don't know the answer to. Let me find out and I'll get back to you.” Then I wrote it on a Post-It and stuck it to the wall behind my monitor so I'd remember to do it.

    It was hard at first, especially being so young in my position and trying to convince people that I was an authority, to admit that I might not know the answer. Then I learned something someone had said about me and it changed everything. They told another person who was asking about me “Elisa's fantastic, and she knows everything. Even if she doesn't know the answer right off she'll know where to go to get the answer. You should always ask her first.”

    I figure that's better than “knowing it all” any day :)

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    Elisa-Very good point to make: it's okay to say I don't know, but to then seek out the answer. I like that and I feel the same way with my post-it notes :)

  • http://www.lifeschocolates.com sameve

    This is such a great question, Grace. I think that saying I don't know takes more strength than we often realize. There is an implication of failure or letting people down when you say it, and yet choosing to be honest despite those burdens is pretty impressive. I believe that honesty is the best policy. What if you make something up instead of admitting you don't know? Before you know it, you will be so deep into your lie that you won't be able to get out without being completely humiliated. People are so worried about not being good enough that they don't realize it's normal and human to be imperfect.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    Sam-Another good point. You don't want to jump down the rabbit hole with your lie, because it will be built on more lies. I think it requires an internal strength and the ability to agree, 'I don't know.' I think it's good practice to recognize that we are human and imperfection is beauty–it's natural. Thanks for the thoughts Sam!

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    I have definitely faced this issue as a consultant. Sometimes I will be paid to solve a crisis and hard questions come up. Questions where the only right answe “I don't know.” What I usually fall back on, though, is that I have a social media network with friends and connections who usually do know the answers I don't… or who at least know where to look for the answers.

    I confidently don't know a lot of things, but I am confident that I can ask smart people and find a really good answer in just a few days.

  • http://www.lifewithoutpants.com Matthew

    Very good point here, and it does take personal will to be able to admit we don't have all of the answers, even though as bloggers, writers, and entrepreneurs, we want to come off as 'experts' – as you said, sometimes the best way to answer a question is 'I don't know'.

    But it doesn't end there – if you say 'I don't know' – follow it up with 'Let me do a little investigation and get back to you' and respond with something related that you DO know. You may not have all of the answers, but odds are you have a few. It's ok to not know everything, but when presented with a challenging question, use that as a springboard to educate yourself so that the next time your asked, you DO know.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    Brett- You bring up a good point from a professional standpoint. Sometimes it's not just your boss or friends, but an important client that asks you a question or wants you to solve a problem for them. In life, we have many resources but your own social network is a great place to start. Thanks for the thoughts!

    Matt- Again, I didn't mention it but it's so true: if you don't know the answer, keep going and say that you will figure it out. I also think it's a cool idea because saying 'I don't know' leads to the realization that you can figure it out and will soon know the answer. I think that feels good, especially because it's laced with honesty.

  • http://www.lifewithoutpants.com Matt Cheuvront

    Very good point here, and it does take personal will to be able to admit we don't have all of the answers, even though as bloggers, writers, and entrepreneurs, we want to come off as 'experts' – as you said, sometimes the best way to answer a question is 'I don't know'.

    But it doesn't end there – if you say 'I don't know' – follow it up with 'Let me do a little investigation and get back to you' and respond with something related that you DO know. You may not have all of the answers, but odds are you have a few. It's ok to not know everything, but when presented with a challenging question, use that as a springboard to educate yourself so that the next time your asked, you DO know.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    Brett- You bring up a good point from a professional standpoint. Sometimes it's not just your boss or friends, but an important client that asks you a question or wants you to solve a problem for them. In life, we have many resources but your own social network is a great place to start. Thanks for the thoughts!

    Matt- Again, I didn't mention it but it's so true: if you don't know the answer, keep going and say that you will figure it out. I also think it's a cool idea because saying 'I don't know' leads to the realization that you can figure it out and will soon know the answer. I think that feels good, especially because it's laced with honesty.

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  • Beth

    Grace,
    Hey lady!!!! Just stumbled on your blog from facebook…lovin' it!…. and your point you reminds me of one of the most profound things I have heard lately….. from my 5 year old grand daughter, Nayilah…
    When an adult told her that she asks too many questions and that from now on she was only allowed to ask him 5 questions a day… she responded with confidence…”Well I don't know EVERYTHING…I'm still learning ….so I have to ask questions to keep learning!” If only we all had the confidence of a 5 year old…! Hope you are well!

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.com Grace Boyle

    @Beth Hi!! Thanks for stopping by :) I blog for/with work and have been blogging the last two years. Stop by anytime!

    I love what Nayilah said, she should keep saying that. There are no stupid questions and it shows an inquisitive, smart mind! xxoo

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