Why it's ok to say 'I don't know'

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A common human habit is not being able to admit what you don't know. Here’s why you should learn how.

How many times have you found yourself in the midst of people who wax eloquently about what’s right, what’s wrong, and how things should and should not be, when it was obvious that their views were one-sided, misinformed, if not outright lies?

Now, how many times have you been that person?

You have almost certainly been in a situation where it was difficult to stay silent even when you didn’t have anything truly useful to add … where you answered a question you weren’t qualified to answer.

Practicing the art of silence or simply saying ‘I don’t know’ can be hard to do. That’s because it evokes a variety of fears that trigger the ego to step in and overcompensate:

Fear of missing out — not wanting to be left out or the only one who isn’t in the know.

Fear of judgment— afraid of what other people might think if you don’t act a certain way or say a certain thing.   

Confidence tied to external approval — so caught up in external praise and recognition that your sense of self becomes dependent on it.

Competitiveness without cause — an unhealthy obsession with being the best even in situations where there is no need to compete.

Difficulty accepting what you don’t know — inability to be at peace with your intellectual shortcomings.

These are just a few of the unpleasant emotions that lead to disingenuous behavior and ultimately make it hard to be in sync with others.

You may, understandably, give into these fears because it makes you feel better in the short-run by seemingly alleviating threats to your pride and sense of self.

But in the long-run this dishonest behavior can further complicate your life because it involves keeping up a facade — and pretending all the time eventually backfires.

At a minimum, it’s lose-lose for all involved when conversations are built around superficial knowledge that is really just a cover-up for insecurity.

Your communication should be thoughtful, helpful, and credible so it is important to filter out the fluff and fillers and craft your words from a clear and authentic place.

Try to get comfortable with being honest with yourself and others about what you don’t know.

Here is a challenge for the next few days: anytime you are asked a question that you don’t have an answer to, simply try to admit that you don’t know.

You can offer to follow up later, think more about the question, or investigate further, but resist the urge to answer if you truly have no clue.

This is not an all or nothing exercise. It’s ok if there are situations where you believe that admitting ignorance is not in your (or another person’s) best interest. It’s up to you to decide what response is most appropriate.

However, be sure to reflect on each incident and try to gain a deeper sense of self-awareness.

This challenge is a success if you gain a bit more clarity around why you do (or don’t) feel ok admitting your lack of knowledge.


Reading Recommendations

The Honest Truth About Dishonest: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves is a fascinating read that explores the factors behind the irrational human need to lie, cheat, and deceive to get ahead.

I don't know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn’t) is a lightweight book that dives a bit deeper into the ubiquitous habit of covering up lack of knowledge. 

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