The Smartest Thing You Can Say

At some point everyone has struggled to say these three words. However, the smartest people I know aren’t afraid to say them. It is a very simple statement, really.

“I don’t know.”

It is a simple statement, but it can be so hard to say, particularly in front of co-workers or one’s boss. We have all worked with people who refuse to say they don’t know the answer. The problem is, when someone consistently refuses to acknowledge something they might not know, nothing they say can be trusted. Often people would rather make up an answer, guess or outright lie than admit needing to do some research to get the right information.

As tough as it is to say these words, there are several benefits to saying “I don’t know.”

Builds trust
Nothing builds trust like honesty. It sounds so simple but we often screw it up. People get caught up thinking if I always have an answer, if I’m confident or if I’m in the know…they will trust me. It’s not that complicated. Saying “I don’t know but I can find the answer and get back to you” does far more to build trust.

Avoids promises you can’t keep
An often used cliche is “under promise and over deliver”…and yes, it’s a cliche because it is true. One way to do that is to avoid making too strong a statement, particularly about something you cannot fully control. I recently had someone on my team at work telling me: if we do this, it will change this outcome by X%. Do you know that for sure? No. Do you believe it will work? Sure. Opening this with “I don’t know for sure, but logic shows doing this will change the outcome by X%” leaves an opening to be wrong. You aren’t making promises you can’t keep.

Shows strength
We hold ourselves to a high standard. We don’t want to show weakness. We are scared of being vulnerable. Admitting we don’t have the answer isn’t either of those things. It is a strength to admit a gap or a blind spot. It is comfort in your ability and your intellect that you don’t have to know everything to still be talented and smart.

Promotes discussion
No one likes to work with people who have all the answers. It can be exhausting. The reality is, none of us can do it alone. A willingness to acknowledge what we don’t know encourages engagement with those around us. Often, the people we work with can fill in some gaps. They have insights and knowledge we don’t. The exchange of info and ideas is empowering and encourages people to do more.

Shows wisdom
Knowing what you don’t know is often as important as knowing what you know. When people willingly admit a lack of knowledge on a given topic, it tells me they have a high level of self awareness and have considered their strengths and weaknesses. They know where they have gaps and rely on others to help fill those gaps.

Strengthens other opinions
Everyone seems to have an opinion. Often people have strong opinions on things they actually know very little about…just look at Facebook any random day. An openness about where you know little, or haven’t formed an opinion, gives much more credibility to the opinions and knowledge you do have.

Saying “I don’t know” is simply part of developing honest relationships with your co-workers and effective work relationships must be built on honesty. Along the way, admitting you don’t know everything can result in the benefits listed above. It’s too bad this phrase is so rarely used. As Socrates put it, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Originally published on the Good Men Project