My wife and I recently returned from a wonderful three weeks in Costa Rica. The people were warm, peaceful and very helpful – sometimes too helpful. If they didn’t know the answer to a question, for example, they would make something up rather than disappoint us. Expats told us stories of contractors being so eager to please that they would make unrealistic promises with respect to completion dates or budget. It seemed that in Costa Rica, as elsewhere, “I don’t know” was not an acceptable response. This is unfortunate, as “I don’t know” can be serve us in many ways.
As a fledgling conflict resolution trainer some 23 years ago, I felt I had to have the answers – after all, wasn’t that what participants were expecting? This changed for me when I was fortunate to sit in on a colleague’s class. During the class, a participant asked a challenging, subtle question. As I mentally rehearsed my answer to the question, my colleague shocked me by saying “that’s a good question – I don’t know – let’s talk about it”. He then engaged students in a dialogue that tapped into their cumulative wisdom and experience. And no one thought the less of him. In modeling curiosity he removed his ego from the equation and created “safe space” for productive dialogue. I began to give myself permission to say “I don’t know”, and felt a weight lift.
Consider how the need to “know”, or be seen as knowing, impact organizational life. When receiving an ambiguous request from a coworker, someone will assume they know what the other person wants. It’s only after the fact they may learn otherwise. Other times, in the absence of clear communication about corporate strategy or direction, the rumor mill will churn, as employees squirm with the uncertainty of “not knowing”. This is the currency of the “water cooler” culture of rumors, assumptions and gossip. “I don’t know, I better check it out” can prevent misunderstandings and minimize rumors and gossip.
The need to “know” will also handicap our efforts to understand and resolve conflict – and can actually fuel conflict. When someone else’s behavior feels like an affront, we tend to ascribe a sinister motive to the other person. We judge our actions by our intent; we judge the actions of other based on how those actions impact us. And because we are generally uncomfortable with uncertainty, we feel the need to “make stuff up”. We can take a simple incident, fill in the blanks with judgments and assumptions, and create an entire drama – usually featuring ourselves as the hero and the other person as the villain).
So next time you find yourself scrambling to figure out someone’s motivation or intention, allow yourself the luxury of saying “I don’t know”. Your curiosity may be the crack that lets the light in.