I recently listened to a Freakonomics podcast that really resonated with me. It was all about saying, “I don’t know,” and why that is so hard for many people. First let’s think about why it’s so hard, and then I want to dive into why we SHOULD say it more often.
Why Saying You Don’t Know is So Hard
As is the case with a lot of hard things, I believe fear keeps us from admitting that we don’t know a lot of the time, especially fear of what people will think.
Maybe we are afraid that people will see us as incompetent. Those of you who sell taxes don’t want your tax clients to lose confidence in you. Maybe you are afraid that admitting you don’t know something will make you seem unknowledgeable.
Admitting we don’t know can sometimes make us feel stupid. Like when you don’t get the joke and everyone else is laughing. This is especially true if you feel like you SHOULD know something.
Those of us in professional service companies are probably fearful of losing work. If we admit we don’t know something, will that person find a different accountant that DOES know more than me?
And if you are successful, maybe you fear losing the respect of your peers and colleagues who perceive you as really knowledgeable.
Why Saying You Don’t Know is a Good Thing
Every one of those fears above is valid, but are they reasonable? Let’s consider why saying you don’t know is often the best thing you can do.
When you say you don’t know, you are poised to learn. Have you ever tried to teach someone who seemed to know it all already? Not happening. Most of us say we want to be lifelong learners. That starts with admitting you don’t know everything.
When you tell someone you don’t know the answer, they know you will tell the truth. It can build trust. I once interviewed a person for a job in our firm. I asked a question and he didn’t know the answer. But guess what, he TOLD me that. So I believed him when he had answers for the other questions. And guess what, he emailed me back later after having researched my question. He basically demonstrated that he would be honest if he lacked information, but that he knew how to find it later. We eventually hired him. And I would rather work with a person I can trust than one who makes something up any day. That is true for an employee or a professional I hire.
No one benefits when we fake our way through a situation. No one learns and no one improves. Being vulnerable is hard, but will usually lead to greater opportunities. So get comfortable with phrases like, “I don’t know the answer to that right now, but I will get back to you by tomorrow afternoon.” We have never had a client get mad at us for an honest answer. Please share some of your experiences in the comments.
Jennifer earned her degree in Early Childhood Education from Winthrop University. She has taught in public school as well as homeschooled her own children for many years. Jennifer serves the Thriveal members as the Community Manager. She also produces Thriveal’s podcast, The Thrivecast, and serves as the Director of Operations for Blumer & Associates CPAs. She loves college football, especially the South Carolina Gamecocks. You can read more from Jennifer at her personal blog, Finally Jennifer. Jennifer and her husband, Jason Blumer, live in Greenville, SC with their three beautiful daughters and their two dogs, Rose and Jessie.