Wynand wrote this email to me with this article attached and I thought it worth quoting as an intro to this brilliant article:

I have just finished reading “Risk Makes Sense” (I am a slow reader, and the book invites you to read it slowly and allow lots of time for reflection), and the book certainly prompted me to reflect on many aspect of my life and thinking.  As part of this process, I wrote this piece as a reflection on how I see, have experienced and makes sense of the concept of “I don’t know”.  I hope this can be a source of some reflection and debate on this simple topic.

I don’t know – Three words with a world of meaning and emotion.

Depositphotos_9428687_xs_thumbWe tend to be scared, very scared, of these three words. I think much of this fear comes from school, where they meant either marks lost in a test, sometimes punishment, sometimes ridicule, but very seldom presents a learning opportunity when given in response to a question.

In the adult world, often this represents a fear of ridicule or humiliation. We tend to want to be able to answer every question, sometimes even though we know that the answer is not correct. We will do anything to be able not to have to answer “I don’t know”.

In a culture of absolutes, “I don’t know” is never an acceptable answer. The “expert” must know all the answers (often in his own mind, while sometimes not necessarily in the mind of the person asking the question). It sometimes seems as if not being able to answer is the same as losing control. Not being able to answer is perceived as not being competent. Having the answer to everything is seen as a virtue, and the person with “all the answers” is made to be the hero. (Have you noticed, even in popular media, how this is used as a compliment – here is “the person with all the answers”. Heroes like MacGyver had to be able to get out of any situation without the inputs from anyone else. While this makes for good entertainment, it does not support the concept of a learning, cooperative culture.)

In a culture of absolutes in safety, the “safety person” may consider himself to be in a position where an answer must be given in all situations, and by accepting the practice of accepting all the answer, this person is reinforced in believing he has all the answers. This viewpoint then prevents the asking of questions – why ask open questions if you already have the answer? Or even worse, ask leading questions with the sole purpose of getting to the answer “you already have”. Also see https://safetyrisk.net/the-art-of-humble-enquiry-as-a-pathway-to-safety-improvement/. (Another good read is “Teaching That Changes Lives, 12 Mindset Tools for Igniting the Love of Learning” by Marilee Adams, Berrett-Koehler © 2013.)

In a culture of hubris, being able to answer is the best way to assert yourself, especially when you are in a position to enforce the consequences of the answer. I also believe in the other way round – believing you have all the answers creates the hubris.

The problem, as discussed in an earlier post, is that this does not open up the discussion. “I don’t know” should be the opening for “so let us find out”. However, how often is this response made in an earnest quest for answers, and how often is “so find out” used in a demeaning way, actually meaning “Go away, and do not dare to come back without an answer”?

On the other hand, “I don’t know” can sometimes be used as an excuse not to fulfil a responsibility. “What happened to x?” “I don’t know”. “What do we do next?” “I don’t know.” This post is not about people looking for a way not to do their work, but for a way to do it better, so I am not exploring this line further.

We need to start embracing the concept of “I don’t know”, but with the right approach. One possible way to do this would be to add the word “but”.

Using the word “but” has received a lot of negative press among behaviour change practitioners, and not always without reason. It is often used to shut off a conversation: “Yes, but…” followed by some excuse as to why something cannot be done. “Yes, but we tried it before.” “Yes, but it cannot be right.” However, used in conjunction with “I don’t know”, it can become a powerful tool in the conversation toolkit.

“I don’t know, but let us discuss this.”

“I don’t know, but let us find out.”

“I don’t know, but I know someone who knows.”

In these sentences, it could be replaced by “therefore”, but quite often the way we talk leans towards using the word “but”.

If we can manage to end the fear of being perceived as weak, incompetent, “stupid”, we can start to celebrate the learning from “I don’t know”. We can start to use it as the starting point for conversations, for being inquisitive, for looking for new opportunities or knowledge. Instead of becoming “armchair experts”, we can become sponges for new knowledge. Where we are managers, we can use this as opportunities to share and coach. As colleagues, we can use this as opportunities to explore new avenues into the unknown without fear of ridicule.

Wynand Serfontein

Wynand Serfontein

Senior Scientist at Sasol
Wynand Serfontein

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Wynand Serfontein
Senior Scientist at Sasol, although this article reflects personal opinion, and is not endorsed by Sasol in any way. Experience: I am a chemist by training, but have been involved in R&D safety since 2007.

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