I Don’t Know…

Phil Andersonby Phil Anderson
Greenleaf Consulting Partner
Thursday, November 7, 2013



I Don't Know

Recently I was in my car listening to a National Public Radio interview with author Leah Hager Cohen about her new book I Don’t Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn’t). “I think those words can be so incredibly liberating,” she told NPR’s Steve Inkseep. “They can just make your shoulders drop with relief. Once you finally own up to what you don’t know, then you can begin to have honest interactions with the people around you.”

My mind shifted to last October when I visited with Max De Pree, retired President and CEO of Herman Miller and a business author. I use one of his quotes in servant leadership training that states, “Great leaders have the strength to abandon themselves to the wild ideas of others.”  When I asked Max to share a little more about that statement, he added, “You have to, because the higher you get [in an organization] the more amateur you become. And it requires humility to admit you don’t know.”

So there it was again: I don’t know.

There are three key thoughts that come to mind if we embrace “I don’t know.” First, it means we must start with listening in order to understand.  Second, we must ask questions to seek knowledge and clarity. Third, we must honor the insights and experiences of others.

In The Servant as Leader, Greenleaf said, “… only a true natural servant automatically responds to any problem by listening first.” He added, “… true listening builds strength in other people.”  When I facilitate community meetings, my most important responsibility is to ensure that people are heard, listened to. This doesn’t mean their view should be the prevailing one, as there are always differing views in the room. So I make an effort to capture their thoughts on flip charts. I listen, then reflect their responses to ensure they are captured correctly, and finally connect them to thoughts and ideas of others. People want their voices and views to be heard and valued.

If we truly listen, what happens next? Legendary basketball coach John Wooden said, “When you start having all the right answers, you will stop asking all the right questions.” Questions begin from the vantage point of “I don’t know” and encourage us to seek clarity.  Greenleaf said, “Nothing is meaningful until it is related to the hearer’s own experience.” Step back and observe someone explaining a new idea. Listeners will often use questions to find a connection between their experiences and the messages put forth by senders.

“I don’t know” opens the door for others to offer their insights and experiences. A dear colleague of mine often says, “People have already decided the outcome, they are just seeking a way to justify it.” In my career, I have certainly found this to be the case. Entering a conversation or meeting with a pre-determined outcome sends a troublesome message to those attending. Not only is their time wasted, but their expertise is dishonored as well.  On the contrary, not knowing allows us to seek common ground and pursue many solutions, not just “the” solution that one individual brings. Inviting everyone into the conversation shows your desire to engage and serve.

Saying “I don’t know” takes the pressure off needing to know the right answer, choosing the right direction, or making the right decision. It shouldn’t shake our self-confidence, but rather teach us humility.  It reveals a world of opportunities and engages the best in others. So, go ahead, say it, “I don’t know,” and feel the release.

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