The three most powerful words

Brett Duncan, while recommending one of my own posts, pointed me over to a fantastic post called “The Power of I Don’t Know“.

In a world where knowledge is power, real strength is shown when you make an admission and show weakness.

It’s such a weird paradox. People have been trained to believe that “not knowing” makes them look weak. So, instead of owning up, they fake the funk, fast-talk, or engage in disfluency and other generally circuitous behaviour.

In trying to look strong, they end up looking weak.

Whenever I’m in a meeting and get asked a tough question that I don’t know the answer to, I own up. I say “I don’t know the answer to that but I’ll find out for you.”

Depending on the question, I may say this: “I don’t know why that is/was, but my best guess is…”

If you do know the answer to the rest of the questions, your simple admission becomes that much more powerful and tells your audience that you really know your stuff.

Whenever I’ve been in a meeting or on a call and someone patently doesn’t know the answer to a question or the reason behind something happening, it’s painful listening to them waffle on, speaking around the subject for the sake of pride.

Painful and selfish to everyone else involved. No, best just to say “I don’t know” and move on. Don’t waste everyone’s time and patience.

11 Responses to The three most powerful words

  1. Scott says:

    Agreed. But I do like the way you followed up the “I don’t know…” with “but I’ll find out for you..” or “but my best guess is..”

    Sometimes an “I don’t know” followed by a blank stare can be just as frusturating as someone trying to B.S. their way through it.

  2. Brett says:

    Thanks for the link.

    I struggle with saying “I Don’t Know” when it’s me that expects me to know the answer, not just the person asking (esp. if it’s my boss). I get frustrated when I overlook something, and I know I should know it.

    However, that’s when you start “faking the funk” and tossing out the office jargon that no one understands but everyone knows what it means – you don’t know! So you might as well just fess up from the beginning.

  3. Good to see this post. I agree that it’s best to be right up front: “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” Or, as you say, to make an educated guess. I abhor hearing people waffle on and on because they don’t know the answer but won’t admit it.

  4. jamesq says:

    It sounds like you’ve had a recent experience! I’m an ex-waffler and it’s not easy to stop. I can proudly say though I’ve been waffle free for over a year now and there’s no looking back!

  5. Judy Gombita says:

    If it’s in a meeting setting, I like to flip it back to the crowd, “No, I don’t know that answer at this point, but perhaps someone else here can help to shed some light?”

    It’s amazing how many people don’t volunteer information unless asked. And when they do feel comfortable in volunteering information, often you get some real pearls of wisdom or advice. Indirectly you look good. You also garner goodwill from putting the spotlight on someone else.

    (Of course part of me always keeps in mind the saying, “There are no stupid questions, only stupid answers.”)

  6. Ed Lee says:

    jamesq – you’re lucky I don’t delete your comment. an everton fan! this place is going to the blogs.

    in all seriousness, i’ve managed to not only cut out all waffle from my meetings, but all “er”s and “um”s which are now filled with the sound of me trying to think. generally silent but with the faint whur of cogs spinning and some smoke coming out of my ears…

  7. Sameer Vasta says:

    Amen! I’ve been a fan of the I don’t know for years, but only if I guarantee to follow up. It has really shaken up the way some of my clients and people I work with interact with me: they know I’m going to be honest about my knowledge, and also know I’ll put in the work to learn a bit too.

  8. Honesty always wins out in the end. It’s really a question of whether we have the courage to be honest about the parameters of our own expertise.

    Good post Ed!

  9. vhxn says:

    Nice post it seems you have a lot of experience and your three powerful words are quiet interesting.

  10. Now, I know that I’m not alone in the world when I utter the phrase “I don’t know the answer” and just add up on the latter part “I’ll find it for you”.

    That’s much better, rather than to hear the speaker bluffing about a certain topic. That would be so much irritating! It is important to be honest to yourself and to the people that surrounds you.

  11. […] 2009-11-06T04:56:18  The three most powerful words « Blogging Me Blogging You [link to post] […]

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