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The paradox of “I don’t know"

Jon ClarkYou’re in a meeting with a new client, demonstrating that product that you know your way around, showing off what happens when you click on this button and that button and inevitably you get the dreaded question, “can it do x”. Remember you know this product, so you like questions, you like questions because you know the answers and it makes you look knowledgeable and in control; but hang on, let’s not get carried away with our new self-worth.

Let’s talk about how you’re about to deal with this question that you actually don’t know the answer to! You feel put on the spot, and look for that easy get-out that enables you to stay in control.

  1. Pretend you know the answer and waffle
  2. Answer a different question
  3. Bamboozle with jargon
  4. Ask them a question and change the subject.

The above might sound all too familiar. By using one of the above techniques you may feel that you have solved the problem and that everyone is happy; the atmosphere doesn’t change, there’s no feedback and therefore we can progress from that difficult situation. Heck, you might have even have fooled a couple of people that are still in awe of your earlier prowess. Don’t be fooled!

Now let’s look at the same scenario but from a client’s perspective.

You’re the client, and you have a critical question you’re keen to know the answer to, so you ask it. If you get an answer that does not resolve your question, or leaves you feeling alienated, confused or made to feel stupid, then you don’t feel confident. Potentially you won’t ask another question, or worse still, you lose respect for the presenter. The relationship takes a hit!

So what’s the solution?

Just say “I don’t know”. To hear this is refreshing; it shows honesty, integrity, willingness to learn and listen. If there is a problem in the future (which there often is), it shows responsibility and gives reassurance. It’s ok to show that you are human, relate to your client, say “I don’t know the answer to that question, but I will find out and get back to you”.

Clients will respect your honesty and transparency. They like to deal with people they feel they can trust and who make them feel confident and understood. That is how business is done. It’s far more difficult to do business at any stage of the process with people that don’t respect or trust you.

Lastly, imagine you ask your colleague a question they don’t know the answer to. If they avoid the question, or attempt to answer it, but it’s incorrect, you start to doubt their knowledge. However, if they say “I don’t know”, you respect them far more for their honesty, and trust the areas of expertise they do possess.

Therein lies the paradox of “I don’t know”. Just remember, saying “I don’t know”, is not a sign of weakness!

Author: Jon Clark, 14 March 2016

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