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The 3 Hardest Words: How To Have The Confidence To Say ‘I Don’t Know’

by Hanna Brooks Olsen
money & life

What’s the worst thing you could say to your boss or to a client? What’s the one answer that you’re pretty sure would get you fired, like, tomorrow?

In their book, Think Like A Freak, economists and Freakonomics Radio podcasters Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt submit that the three scariest words in the English language aren’t “I love you,” but rather “I don’t know.” And, they posit, our collective fear of admitting that we don’t know or aren’t sure isn’t just problematic personally and socially, but might actually be costing the us billions of dollars.

“The thing about always faking is that if you fake like you know the answer, you don’t have the freedom to explore other possibilities,” explains Levitt in an episode of the podcast. “But if you actually care about the outcome and the truth, saying ‘I don’t know’ is critical.”

Levitt, who works as a business consultant, says he’s seen companies blow through huge sums of money doing the same old thing — whether it’s sticking with older forms of advertising, using methods of hiring that consistently fail to produce the right candidates, or staying the course in almost any other way — instead of admitting that they aren’t sure if there’s a better way, and, as a result, experimenting and looking for a new solution. At one particular company, Levitt said that “it was easier to spend a billion dollars pretending they knew than to actually find out the answer.”

But saying “I don’t know” on a micro level can also be hugely beneficial.

“Within the business world, there’s a general view that your job is to be an expert,” Levitt noted. “And no matter how much you have to fake or how much you are making it up that you just should give an answer and hope for the best afterwards.”

This system, though, all but ensures two very unpleasant workplace realities: That many of us are putting ourselves at risk of actively avoiding growth and learning in the interest of preserving our “expertise,” and that the loudest, most assured-seeming (but not the most qualified) people are the ones who get ahead. Which Levitt calls “so counterproductive.”

how to say I don't know

“I mean, think about it. It might keep your job for another week or another month, it might make people think you are good, but that’s not the point. I mean what fun is life if all you do is go through life trying to fake that you are something that you are not when really the goal is to be good, and to improve, and to learn, and to make things better.”

Pretending to know can also backfire significantly, especially when the people around you do know. One thing that’s easy to forget when you’re faking is that those who aren’t faking are going to know that you are.

“No one wants to look stupid so it’s easier to nod your head when you don’t know what someone is talking about,” writes 42 Floors’ Jason Freedman. “I realize now it creates the opposite effect. Every time I appear to understand something I don’t, it just makes me look foolish.”

So how do you begin saying those three dreaded words? You could opt for some alternative (“let me be clear about what you’re saying…”). Or, you could just start saying them. And you might be surprised how well it actually goes over.

Writing for their blog, Buffer’s Kevan Lee says that by admitting what they don’t know, his company has come up with some of their most interesting answers — both to them, and to their readers.

“Not knowing things seems to be the best way to learn quickly and teach others at the same time. So many of our biggest hits on the blog have come from saying, ‘We don’t know the answer. Let’s find out!'”

Because the sneaky truth about not knowing is that everyone does it. After all, if everyone already knew everything, would Google, a site that is literally designed to help people find out things that they don’t know, be the mammoth industry leader it is?

Though it may seem like you’re the only person in the room who isn’t 100% certain of what’s happening, that seems statistically and experientially unlikely. How many times has someone asked a question in a meeting, only to have it greeted with nods of relief, as we others confirm that they, too, needed clarification?

The key, then, is confidence. Confidence to admit that you need more information before making an informed decision — and that the reason you’re admitting to your own knowledge gap is because you aren interested in the best possible result. You aren’t saying that you don’t know and that you have no interest in finding out; you’re saying you don’t know and you will actively work to become someone who does know.

When you admit to not knowing, make sure to follow up with the assertion that you have every intention of finding out. Rather than simply shrugging off what you don’t know, making a concerted effort to pursue the information you need. That way, you’re not saying “I don’t know” in vain — but rather, with a purpose.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.