I Don’t Know.

Are you able to say “I don’t know” when you are not sure of something without any sense of shame, guilt, embarrassment or thinking of the repercussions ( this does not include exams where there are no marks for saying “I don’t know”)? 

In some cultures, it’s just not o.k. to say “I don’t know”. Ignorance must not be flaunted. You must say something but just not the 3 magic words.

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Warning: Never ask for the direction to any place to people from these cultures 🙂. You never know where you’ll end.

Dad hated me saying “I don’t know”

As a child of seven or eight, being the eldest born, my dad had a lot of expectations from me. I was supposed to know it all- general knowledge, current affairs, jokes, singing, dancing… When I said, “I don’t know” for the first time, he looked shocked and angry. Raising his voice or maybe to a child of eight, it seemed raised, he said, I was never to say it. I had no clue what I was to say if I did not know something because dad did not want to hear it. I wondered if there were words that would sound better but would mean the same.

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know8After a futile attempt to look for alternate words to say “I don’t know”, I just continued saying it. If I had no answer to a question posed by dad, I would say it softly and slowly. I had no intention of angering my dad and dad had no choice but to accept the fact that his first-born was blessed with average intelligence. It broke his heart.

Dad hoped one day like Kalidasa, a  great Sanskrit writer considered to be the Shakespeare of India ( as per Indian History Kalidasa was a dim-wit who everybody poked fun of. Legend has it that he prayed hard to God to bless him with intelligence. Seeing his faith, God looked upon him kindly and he went on to write the most famous plays and poems and become known as the greatest writer of all times), the good God would shower his mercy on his eldest child. 

What dad did not know was that every-time I uttered the three dreaded words, it would send me scurrying around looking for answers and then I would wait for him to to ask me  the question again. Unfortunately he never asked the same question again.  Fortunately, dad did not impose his beliefs on his children and these words continued to be very much a part of my vocabulary.

Teach little children to say “I don’t know” .

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“I don’t know” does not translate to “I don’t care”

Sadly, we are never taught in school that it’s fine to say “I don’t know”. Imagine a situation – The teacher points to you, you stand up, all eyes are on you, a question is thrown your way, you have no clue, you mumble your way through but you cannot say, ” I don’t know”, your ears are red with embarrassment and the teacher impatiently asks you to sit down. You no longer belong to the bright- students group because you’re not fit anymore.

It’s fine to say “I don’t know” as long as you are willing to learn”. I wish teachers reiterated this message to students so we have confident, reliable adults who will say it as it is without wasting time.

Parents please teach children that unless one accepts the fact that one is unaware, one is never going to learn. Believing you know it all or behaving like you have all the answers is a lie. Expecting children to know all the answers is creating unnecessary pressure and raising adults who are under an illusion that they must know everything or else they will be scorned upon.

There are no half marks  for getting part of the question right in the big, big world. If you’re not sure say it in the affirmative “I’ll check and get back to you”.

Do everybody a favor and don’t be the author of misleading information or statements.

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At Work

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In one of the organisations that I worked for, there was a time when a girl joined my team from another department. She was hardworking and diligent and came with  banking experience of around 8 years but she was new to the entire business of cards. Six months later, when  few of the older staff in the group in which she worked, were on leave, she had additional responsibility assigned to her. And well we had a spate of mistakes, small  at first and then a big one wherein she had provided incorrect information with utmost confidence, without checking with anybody else simply because she was under a self-created pressure to answer the caller’s question immediately. She couldn’t bring herself to say she wasn’t aware and would check and get back. That would be an insult to all the years of experience she had. Result: It led to a dissatisfied customer who wanted to sever the relationship he had with the bank across all products. Needless to say it left a lot of people angry.

 SOS Alert : An emergency training had to be held over the next 3 days. At the end of day 1, I ended the training with “ Please send me any questions that you have by email either on today’s training or from experience, I will gladly answer them. If I do not know the answers, I will find out and get back to you in a day or two”. The team looked at each other shocked. Their boss had just said the taboo words “If I don’t know”. 

 Day 2’s training was to instill an attitude where  it’s o.k. to say “I don’t know. I will check and get back to you” even if senior management is on your heels.  And then Check. See it in black and white, don’t say it based on here-say.  “It is so and so because so and so said it”, is not an answer. It is so and so because it’s clearly mentioned in the product document or the policies and procedures, is an acceptable answer.

The higher you rise, why is it more difficult to say it?

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Nobody knows everything and that’s just the simple truth.

Last week was hectic at the office because one of the departments had an audit. They needed the reconciliation of some accounts from us which we provided. And then they needed some more details, which were not under the purview of Operations. It was the month-end. Month-end at an Ops. shop can be absolutely crazy with booking applications, passing all the necessary entries to close accounts, month-end reconciliations and then here was a demand for something that we did not have. But with a deadline of today given by audit, nobody cared if we were busy. “No” wasn’t an option.  Since we hadn’t met a request of this nature before, we decided to get help from the experts at Central Operations. In response, we were sent some steps on how to extract the figures and a formula that if used would produce the desired results. All we had to do was figure it out.

The ball had been pushed back into our court again and the strong and mighty had been copied on the email.  ” Do not keep the ball in your court” is the only motto of some teams and managers and they spend their whole working lives living by this motto.

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On receiving the email the below was the reply we sent, ” Dear X,  we do not know how to proceed with the below formula. So to avoid any further delay, we kindly request you to do it once and show it to us so that we can meet any future requests of a similar nature“. All the big-wigs copied earlier on the email were copied again.

The phone rang instantaneously, ” How can we give a reply like this and let business think that Operations has no clue?”, said a voice at the other end, a voice that had a say on my performance.

5 days later, and we did not receive a reply to the email sent by us. Apparently, the sender of the email had finally requested the vendor to provide support. The formula provided had not been tested or tried before and hadn’t produced the desired results.

Finally today, the vendor provided the data and we were a happy lot. The team was just glad that they had not been asked to decipher a formula that seemed no less complex than the Da Vinci Code, when they were starved for time.

The moral of this story is “Do not come under pressure  to do something or to give an answer under pressure”. If anything goes wrong, you must know, your neck will be on the line. Be ready to say, you don’t know when you’re not sure. Be open to learning when you don’t know. Be transparent . Get back after checking.

There may be seniors in organisations who are too proud to say the three magic words “I DO NOT KNOW”. The brunt of such leadership is that the team may be sent on a wild goose chase or would have to look for a needle in a hay-stack. 

Say it as it is. The Three Magic Words “I DON’T KNOW”

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Even if it means you need to go against the tide, be brave and stand your ground. There are many who follow. Don’t be one of them. Be humble enough to accept that you do not know it all and based on my experience, I can tell you it’s  absolutely fine. There will be people in the organisation who will respect you for not sending them in circles. These people will know that they can come back to you in future because you have shown the courage to say “I don’t know. I need time to find out” and you only say things when you are absolutely sure. Don’t follow the rest of the world. Let people come back to you not because they want to pass the buck but because they trust your information. In an era of emails, where everything you say is backed by an email for evidence, people will need no evidence when they speak to you. That I think will speak volumes for your professionalism. As I wrote this blog, I decided to hunt around the net and found this link how to be smarter by saying “I don’t know”

In a nut-shell, say the magic golden words, liberate yourself, open yourself to learning and get the answers. Do it right! 

Have you ever suffered because someone gave you a wrong answer instead of just saying “I don’t know” or have you ever felt you lacked the courage to say it? Do share your opinions in the comments. Would love to hear your opinions and feedback.

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15 comments

  1. Nice write up Smitha. You always come up with new topics. It’s pleasure to read your post. Really, there is nothing wrong in saying “I don’t know” rather than beating around the bush. It shouldn’t sound like dull / arrogant but showing curiosity & willingness to learn it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Bhavana. You’re always kind and positive with your feedback. It’s been a long time. I’ve missed your comments. I am so glad you agree. I just wish those who do not say it, read my post :). It would make life so much easier. You’re so right when you say, it shouldn’t sound arrogant but show the willingness to learn. That’s the right approach.

      Like

    1. Thanks Jeni. I understand. I generally write not-so-long blogs. Guess, I got carried away with the frustration of people’s inability or unwillingness to say ” I don’t know” ☺. Thanks for your very honest comment. Totally appreciate it.

      Like

  2. I do pride myself on not being afraid to say ‘I don’t know’ at work – I find it a challenge to understand people who don’t want to admit to a lack of knowledge or a weakness, I want to tell them that it’s fine and that nobody will think any less of them for admitting that they don’t know everything!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. ☺Me too! Have really not been able to understand all the feelings that brew up within a person which makes it difficult for them to accept their unawareness. I just knew that you would be a member of the club where people had no issue in saying ” I don’t know”☺. Thank you so much Andrea for reading the post and sharing your thoughts on the subject.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jayshree, It’s good to know you belong the club ☺. Just wish everybody could be a member so we did not have an issue of going round in circles. Thanks for sharing how you feel.

      Like

  3. Can I share this on my Facebook page? It’s an important topic! My son asks so many questions that I have to answer “I don’t know” or “We’ll have to look that up” many times. We’re modelling that not knowing is okay all the time. It seems to make him more curious.

    My heart breaks for you knowing the answer but not being asked again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sure Angella. Please do. It’s so important to get the message across that it’s fine to say ” I don’t know” rather than mislead people.
      Yes, I did wait to answer and see dad feeling proud but guess parents those days were difficult to please and that probably made us strive harder. Thank you for your kind words and the share.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is such an important subject. When I was a teacher, something I soon discovered was that fellow teachers found it really difficult to admit when they did not know the answer to something, even to the point of giving incorrect information to pupils. I presume they felt too embarrassed at their perceived lack of knowledge. I always felt this was a shame and a missed opportunity because we should be teaching children how to learn. My reply to any pupil who asked me a question to which I didn’t know the answer was, “I don’t know but how can we find out?”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your comment that highlighted such an important issue for learning begins in school. Wish we had more teachers like you who could make learning a discovery and a journey on which the student and the teacher can travel together with no egos coming in between. If it was fixed in schools and homes, we would ever need to discuss it again.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Smitha,

    you’ve treated an interesting topic.It’s no shame to say “I don’t know”, but can only somebody with an open mind .That is the sign that you are ready to learn .

    An elderly lawyer advised me when I started to work, when somebody ask me something to say “I must check “.Then, he said, you will always have a time to be sure in your answers ! Thank you

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Ben,
      Thank you for sharing the wisdom the elderly lawyer imparted to you. “I must check” is such a positive response indicating you are willing to do it, you are open to learning and you want to give the person the correct answer. The nice thing is you remember his words. Many are not fortunate to receive this wisdom and others do not heed it. Thank you again.

      Liked by 1 person

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