Are we afraid to say “I don’t know”? I’d argue that it frees us up to pursue an answer, with the freedom that comes from full transparency. We are on a mission. It may be counterintuitive, but you build trust when you say “I don’t know.” It’s way better than “I think so.”
When I received the following tepid answer to a direct question, “Only in a general sense, but I’m sure it can be used,” I was left with a lack of confidence. It made me wonder if, or when, the person to whom the question was directed might actually make the effort to find out. When one is seeking an opinion, we expect an informed opinion. And when you’re seeking the answer to a direct question, an evasive response undermines your confidence in everything that follows.
During an informative lecture by Donald Norman, one of the country’s preeminent designers and author of the best-selling book The Design of Everyday Things, he discussed the nature of inquiry and its importance to designers. Designers seek solutions. He told a story about seeing a doctor about a chronic ear infection. When he asked his doctor what it was, the doctor replied, “I don’t know. I’ll find out.” He was glad. We want our doctors to find out. We don’t want them to guess, surmise, or apply a general prescription to our specific condition.
When a person answers “I don’t know, I’ll find out,” we tend to believe that they will pursue a thorough path to get the answer. And then you can turn “I don’t know” into a comprehensive response, until the next question comes around.