There is both power and danger to saying those three little words; “I don’t know” (or IDK). A recent interaction with a coaching client who was struggling with a lot of “I don’t know” from a partner triggered this post. I realized how often I may have said “I don’t know” in the past and how that can affect everyone in the long run. The client expressed frustration that their partner frequently said “I don’t know” because it was causing resentment in the relationship. When the partner finally got upset enough to make a list of wants, my client said “WTF – why couldn’t they have said what they wanted in the first place.” That sounds simple but can be very difficult for some people. On the other hand, there are plenty of instances where “I don’t know is beneficial, especially in a leadership role. It lets others know we’re not perfect. Here’s a quick summary of the good and bad of saying “I don’t know.”
The Powerful Impact of IDK
Like all humans, no individual has all of the answers. The good news is there is usually someone who does know or has the expertise or gift to offer. Sharing our knowledge and gifts is how we all feel like we belong and have significance. Here are some ways we can utilize “I don’t know”:
- Leaders can say “I don’t know but that’s a good area for [employee name]”, or “I don’t know but here is my best guess” or “I don’t know and I’m going to look into it and get back to you by January 28, 2023”. Doing so indicates to staff that everyone contributes and individual expertise will be utilized.
- Significant others can say “I don’t know, can you help me” or “I don’t know but my partner is good at this, let’s ask him/her”. This creates a sense of connection, commitment to help each other and highlight each other’s strengths.
- Parents can say “I don’t know, that’s a great question. Let’s see if we can find the answer” or “that’s a good question and maybe you can find the answer and share it with me”. This helps children feel a sense of significance and builds critical thinking skills.
The Dangerous Underground of IDK
Saying “I don’t know” (when you do) for fear of rejection is just another way of saying to yourself, “I am not good enough to ask for what I want.” This is a mistaken belief. We are all important and have the right to ask for what we want. We also have the right to respond with “Yes”, “No” or “Yes, and” (negotiate). Here is when “I don’t know” causes conflict:
- The more your body reacts to a question needing a decision, the more you actually DO know what you want. Hiding your wants by saying “I don’t know” results in that reaction staying inside your body in the form of stress and anxiety.
- The more you say “I don’t know” when you do know, the more resentment is bottled up. Eventually, the bottling will have to be released and it usually won’t go well. When you finally do release your “knows/wants” the other parties involved in the conflict will also resent the fact that you kept those hidden. You’ll likely get the response like the story above – WTF!! For the person on the other side, it feels unfair and dishonest.
- When you say “I don’t know” forcing others to make all of the decisions, relationships will be unbalanced. The one making the decisions will resent having to do all of the work. The one refusing to make decisions may also resent not getting what they want (even if they refuse to say it out loud).
Increasing Your Courage to Get Beyond IDK
When you say “I don’t know” for fear of rejection, start with small decisions to practice saying what you want. Pick a situation with only tiny risk and the worst thing that could happen is a “no” and that “no” won’t have lasting effects.
For instance, your friends go out to eat and often ask for your help in deciding where to go. Write down the types of foods you like, don’t like, or with which you have allergies or sensitivities. Then, consider the budget constraints you might have. The next time your friends ask, have a statement prepared with several options for the places you like and any budget constraints you might have. Keep using these less significant decisions to practice asking for what you want so you can build up the courage to ask for what you want in more important situations.
Reducing Your Frustration with IDK
If you are the person who is not afraid to ask for wants and frequently get the “I don’t know” response from others, consider a couple of things. First, notice how you are asking questions. How much have I allowed other people to express their interests? Yes/No questions are closed, meaning you either agree or disagree. Open questions that start with who, what, where, when and allows the other to provide input. Rather than “Do you want to go to that Italian place tonight?” you might say “Which would you prefer; Italian, American (or some other option), or would you rather stay in tonight? “
If you feel like you do allow input from the other and they still say “I Don’t Know” often, state how that affects the relationship. Let the other person know that the relationship feels out of balance and you worry that their needs aren’t being met. Tell them directly that it’s important for equal decisions and for both people to say what they want or resentment can build. Statements like “If you never tell me what you want, how will I know what to do?” or “When you say “I don’t know” I take that literally and assume you don’t care or it’s not important. What do you think about that?” Make sure you do this during a time of calm and with good intention and not when an important decision has to be made.
Growing from IDK
I continue to practice saying what I want. A friend and I recently planned to attend an evening event together in my hometown. I asked if she’d like to come out for dinner beforehand. She responded by asking if I’d rather go to a restaurant in town. My urge to agree came quickly but I caught it and thought for a moment. I suspected she just didn’t want to feel like a freeloader but also knew she was watching her budget. Because I too am interested in less spending, I knew I could satisfy both of our wants. So, instead of suggesting a place I just said “I have ham and variety of fruit here if that works for you. That way we don’t have to spend money going out.” She responded with “That would be great and I’ll bring some rolls and veggies.” We enjoyed a simple shared meal and more importantly, just focused on our time together.
I’ve learned how to better identify my wants and prepare myself to ask. My personality isn’t likely to ever make it easy for me fully get beyond “I don’t know” but I’ll continue to work on the skills necessary to ask and negotiate. Living life fully means constant growth.
Contact me for help with IDK
- Leaders who need teams to understand the benefits and dangers of IDK
- Parents who want to instill children with the courage to ask for wants or appropriately express IDK
- Partners who want to negotiate their wants better and equally share their IDK
- Anyone struggling with IDK in their life
- Check out my COACHING services
EMAIL ME AT MICHELLE@ANAVAHCONSULTING.COM
Book: So smart but: … How Intelligent People Lose Credibility – and How They Can Get It Back