When You Want To Move Forward, Avoid The Dead End That Is “I Don’t Know.”
Leadership and professional development culminate in, ultimately, a goal we have for ourselves, but it begins by serving others.
It begins with serving others because, very rarely, can such goals be accomplished without others buying into, believing and investing in, or contributing to what we are trying to achieve, whether they are customers, staff, or other stakeholders.
And there are various ways to serve others.
First and foremost, we can provide others with focused and definitive consultation, guidance, and advice, among other things, based on the knowledge we hold.
Another way in which we can serve others is providing possible options when we don’t have that first-hand knowledge or immediate information to solve a problem.
So, whereas in the methods outlined in the former example of service, where we have the know-how and knowledge we can share with others of what is, through the latter example we can offer and provide assistance by coming up with possibilities of what could be.
“…it’s never about having the right answer overall, but having the right answer in the moment to keep the momentum going.”
If someone comes to us with a question about how to best proceed forward, if we don’t have an immediate answer ready to go, we can help them brainstorm to find the best answer. That advice can either be taken, utilized, and successful, or fall completely flat but, at the very least, there was an attempt to move forward.
But any possible attempt to move forward can die the second someone utters, “I don’t know,” and leaves it at that.
“I don’t know,” is a dead end. If that is the final answer to a question from someone, it ends all ability to think critically, propose and discuss options, and move forward.
It also demonstrates a lack of initiative, commitment, and investment.
In stark contrast to “I don’t know,” making suggestions for consideration demonstrates a foundation of critical thinking off of which to build. And critical thinking doesn’t have to be profound. It doesn’t need to guarantee the answer. Instead, it begins with asking basic, simple questions, looking for options to get to a resolution. It’s based on and reflects the power of curiosity.
“It is not merely about the information we may or may not hold but making sure that we can try to be the link between needs and resources which are quietly connected.”
Going beyond “I don’t know” also illustrates a proactive approach, instead of operating in merely a reactive mode.
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Your response to an inquiry is not only about answering with where your knowledge of the issue might stand in the moment (“I don’t know”), but how you can use your experience to assist someone in working toward securing the information that is needed (“I don’t know…but we might be able to…,” “I don’t know but <<NAME>> has had some experience…,” or “I don’t know but based on my past experience on this issue…”).
Here are a few questions to take into consideration, which, yes, might not provide a final answer to an inquiry but which keep the discussion going and plow through the dead end that is “I don’t know”:
- What might have been your relevant experiences in the past with the topic of the inquiry?
- Where can information be found in resources, studies, or industry publications?
- Who might be an expert who might be accessible to provide further guidance and/or clarification?
- What are other alternatives which should either replace the main thought process in the question or complement it in order to shift the question in the right direction?
This all might seem like common sense, but some people might not be aware of how important it is to take that extra step and offer options based on these points.
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“Part of our roles as leaders and professionals is to be a broker between people, ideas, and information.”
This is not an attempt to say that everyone should have an answer to every question. This has nothing to do with trying to fake an answer. Part of our roles as leaders and professionals is to be brokers between people, ideas, and information. It is not merely about the information we may or may not hold but making sure that we can try to be the link between those who need and those who can provide resources who are either unknowingly, indirectly connected, or neither connected nor accessible to each other at all.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with someone saying they don’t know something as an initial response as long as there is a follow-up demonstrating that they might know how to best proceed to possibly find the answer.
There’s a good chance that if someone is coming to you with a question about something, that you somehow also have a stake in the success of their work or need, whether they’re a colleague and it benefits your work environment, a friend and it enhances their livelihood, or a customer and it builds up your top and bottom lines.
One of the most important aspects of professional development, which parlays into great leadership, is the ability to keep the conversation going, taking into consideration all resources, knowledge, and abilities which might be within reach in one’s own environment.
Related Post: As A Leader, How Are Your Conversational Skills?
Success in any endeavor or mission is about the ability to keep going, fighting, questioning, and improving. Resilience, persistence, and drive are all key components to most definitions of success.
“’I don’t know,’ is a dead end. If that is the final answer to a question from someone, it ends all ability to think critically, propose and discuss options, and move forward.”
Whether or not the initial question or inquiry necessarily benefits you is irrelevant. You make yourself a powerful resource and contact if you can demonstrate that you can work toward a resolution or help someone get on the right track.
Remember: It’s never about having the right answer from the start, but at least having the right response in the moment to keep the momentum going.
Don’t let a discussion or effort you’re involved with die with an “I don’t know.”
So…What About You?
- How do you help guide inquiries toward final resolution?
- Are you aware of all the resources, including people, you have at your disposal?
- What have been your experiences with people answering your questions with “I don’t know” versus the more productive and engaging alternative?