• Eve Arnold

It’s Okay to Say I Don’t Know

I don’t know (get it) what as humans makes us shy away from saying those three seemingly meaningless words but we don’t say them often enough. Perhaps the feeling of being caught off guard or being embarrassed to admit that you ‘didn’t think of that’, that makes us feel afraid. No-one likes to be embarrassed.

But is it really an embarrassment? Fine, sure, there are some things we should know the answer to, the obvious questions… If you’ve just prepared a presentation on potatoes and someones asks you “okay, where do potatoes grow?” you probably should know the answer. But my point here is, you are going to look much cooler by saying “I don’t know” then saying “thanks for the question Bill, potatoes grow on trees”. In my opinion, having a punt and guessing is a recipe for disaster.

I think the benefits of truthfully saying I don’t know have two immediate benefits.

Two Things I Don’t Know

One: It’s not bad to say ‘I don’t know’ when people ask you stupid questions, it makes them look like the plonker not you. We’ve all been there (or maybe it’s actually just me). You’re in a meeting and it going well, surprisingly so. You get through your slides, you actually feel like you know what you’re talking about. Question after question. Bam, bam, bam. At this point you are fairly sure you are untouchable.

And then, someone side swipes you with “that’s fine Eve, but what’s the square root of seven hundred and fifty five”. Shit. Then you find yourself trying to work out the square root of seven hundred of fifty five. You start sweating… “ermm…errr… well”. And it feels like then a total defeat to say ‘I don’t know’. Just because someone has asked a question doesn’t mean it’s not a stupid one. But because it’s a question and you don’t know the answer, we assume that we are the silly ones. It’s a total fallacy.

Using irrelevant information to distract from an argument is an example of a ‘Red Herring’ fallacy (so I’m learning as of this morning). It basically means someone throws you off the scent with stupid information that has no weight. Which means we need to feel confident saying ‘I don’t know, can you talk me through how that links to what we’re talking about’.

Two and I think the most important point is, it causes so many problems. Choosing to bullshit rather than saying ‘I don’t know’ is detrimental. Especially if the person asking the question in genuinely inquiring to get the answer for something they need to do. Let’s talk through a totally made up example.


Someone comes up to you and says “oh hey, I’m working on this project and I need to understand how to get this bit of the project signed off, I’ve spoken to a few people, what do you reckon?” Pretend for this instance you work in accounts, and you’ve never worked on a project in your life (I’m sure people in accounts do work on projects but let’s pretend). At this point if you say “I don’t know, I’ve never worked on a project” then everyone can move on with their life.

Sure it’s five minutes of wasted time but the alternative is quite literally chaos. If you reply with “well, basically what happens is you speak to Phil / Tim / Jim and Bob, then you have to find form A/B/C/D and fill those out, you might want to check previous projects too and escalate to Sandra.” It is total rubbish and you’ve just quite literally given that person about three days worth of work. Not to mention how stupid they’ll look when they go searching for forms that don’t exist and go speaking to Phil and Tim who have also never worked in projects.

I Don’t Know

Worst still, what tends to happen is this answer “well, in the past we’ve done x, y, z but basically what you need to think about is that projects are like oranges on an orange tree and we need to think about how we pick them, if they aren’t ripe we’re going to end up with sour grapes.” It’s total rubbish, they just actually don’t know but are saying words to make if feel like they do. What should have been a five minute conversation turns into forty-five minutes of pure confusion and they will enviably ask again because you made no sense this time and that will make them feel even more embarrassed.

This happens all the time on a daily basis. On a smaller scale, sure but it does happen. In meetings it’s particularly prominent because we naturally feel more embarrassed in front of a group of people rather than one to one. Saying “I don’t know” is probably then, the best thing you can do (obviously if you don’t know).

#Work #Selfawareness #Business #Success #SelfImprovement

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