We take pride in our expertise as professionals dedicated to making a difference for others. Our knowledge is a gift to others, and sharing it with them in meaningful ways gives us a sense of efficacy and deep purpose. We’ve worked to acquire what we know through our studies and through careful reflection on our experiences, and we ready to share it generously.
But sometimes the skill of “not knowing” is as important (or even more so!) than is our expertise.
How “Not Knowing” Is Helpful
Being at ease with not knowing is crucial for answers to come to you.
1. Not knowing gets you off the hook!
It’s a relief to let go of the pressure to always have the right answer at the drop of a hat. When we don’t know, we can be transparent about it, work out a plan and follow through on it. As examples: “Let’s put your question on this week’s team meeting agenda so others can weigh in on this,” or “I don’t know the answer, but I’ll check with Human Resources and get back to you tomorrow.”
Benefits of getting off the hook:
- Avoiding errors that stem from the wish to be helpful and supportive.
- Reduced sense of pressure to always have all the answers.
- Increased learning opportunities for all involved.
2. Not knowing gives the other person the chance to think things through.
Sometimes not knowing what you’re doing allows you to do things you never knew you could do.
~ Nell Scovell
You may have quickly come up with a good solution or a decision. Yet you’re aware that your idea isn’t the only option, and possibly not the best one. Giving the other person the chance to reflect builds capacity and confidence. Allowing him or her to contribute their own thinking can lead to better approaches than either of you would think of on your own. You can ask questions like:
“ What have you considered doing?”
“What is your goal here? What is your role?”
“What does this situation look like from the child’s perspective? What does it look like for the parents?”
Benefits of giving the other person the chance to think things through:
- Strengthens confidence.
- Encourages collaboration by sharing insights, experiences, concerns and observations.
- Promotes reflective thinking and practice.
Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences and failing to create anything useful.
~Margaret J. Wheatley
3. Not knowing can buy time for thoughtful response.
Time pressures. Multiple responsibilities. A constant sense of urgency. Interpersonal conflicts. Culturally-based differences. These are just some of the things can bring out reflexive reaction to difficult questions or situations. When we react rather than reflect, we’re prone to errors in judgment or actions that we later regret. Saying “I’m not sure what to say right now. Let me think it over and get back to you tomorrow” gives you time to handle your immediate reactions and to seek a better understanding of complex or sensitive issues.
Benefits of buying time for thoughtful response:
- Allows time for careful reflection.
- Avoids reacting based on mistaken assumptions.
- Communicates respect.
Not Knowing Strengthens Relationships and Supports Learning
Not knowing anything is the sweetest life.
Knowing how to “not know” is an important skill. Throughout my career I’ve admired and learned from people who are more interested in learning from others than in displaying their expertise and knowledge.
There certainly is a time and place for sharing your knowledge right away. I’ve often said when facilitating training, “If I’m pulled over on the side of the road with steam coming out from under the hood of my car, I don’t want you to ask me what I think the best approach would be. I want you to take care of the problem!”
Most often though, there’s time for not knowing, for exploring options for promoting reflection, and for avoiding reflexive reactions. Not knowing offers the relationship-strengthening gifts of respect, openness, and collaboration while avoiding the pitfall of feeling pressured to fix all the problems quickly and without making mistakes.
You, your colleagues and the families served all benefit from your careful use of the skill of “not knowing.”
Seibel, N.L., Britt, D., Groves-Gillespie, L. & Parlakian, R. (2006). Preventing child abuse and neglect: Parent-provider partnerships in child care. Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE.