Learning to say one simple phrase can trump many other business relationship building activities.
What is it about those three little words that cause us to stammer, ramble, or freeze up in fear? Why do we think that saying them could ruin our relationships, take away our power, and tank our career? How is it that we would rather say ANYTHING else than utter those little syllables? Why do we HATE saying “I don’t know?”
Sure, saying “I love you” might be difficult, but the thought of admitting that we don’t know something at work can be completely crippling. Perhaps it goes back to a feeling like that sinking, embarrassing one we felt when we couldn’t answer the math problem on the blackboard in school. (Do they have blackboards anymore?) You were in front of the class- all of your friends (and frienemies) were looking at you. Your teacher was eagerly watching your progress, expecting the best. You were totally on the spot. You couldn’t walk away- you had to do SOMETHING. And the one thing you didn’t want to do was say “I don’t know”.
As adults, many of us continue to hold onto fears like this. While the teachers and classmates have been replaced with bosses and coworkers, the old fear sometimes remains. However, saying “I don’t know” can actually be a very powerful choice. Being able to embrace those three little words can lead to confidence, credibility, and trust. Here’s the hidden power of “I don’t know”:
1) It keeps you from misspeaking: The riskiest part of attempting to answer a question or solve a problem that you aren’t actually able to is the chance that you may misspeak. Our instinct is to reply somehow, and that is when things get messy. Our nerves and anxiety may take over, causing us to senselessly ramble. In an attempt to answer, you may give an incorrect response that you can’t take back. Think of all of the politicians that have had to issue retractions with the words “I misspoke”. Admitting you don’t know the answer saves you from that trap.
2) It projects confidence: It takes a big person to admit you don’t know something. Assuming that we are all working to our best potential (we know you are!), there probably aren’t many times that you will have to pull out the “I don’t know” card. As we mentioned in #1, nerves can cause us to ramble, which in turn makes us appear lacking in confidence. Project the strongest image by saying something like, “I have to admit, I don’t know the answer to that question, but I will find out for you as soon as possible and let you know. I would be pleased to share that information with anyone else who is interested.”
3) It allows you to find the best solution or answer to a question: Wouldn’t you rather come back to the table with the best, most rockstar answer possible instead of giving an incorrect or incomplete answer? Don’t think of this idea as an excuse or a buy for time. Think of it as an opportunity to give the most useful response, which in turn will build the trust of your colleagues. That’s far more powerful than the alternative!