How do you answer when someone says “I don’t know”?

How do you answer when someone says:

“I don’t know”

When was the last time you heard “I don’t know”?

Was it from your team? Your client? Or even yourself?

When do you think people say “I don’t know”? 

As a leader, an owner, a coach, I hear this more often than I would like. It is surely not the answer I was hoping to get, but it still manifested. It is frustrating because it links to several negative indications and emotions about the person who says “I don’t know”.

It can be one of the following:

1/ I don’t care: It is none of my business, so I don’t know. I am not really bothered by it either.

2/ Don’t blame me, I am innocent: It is usually just another way to say: “Yes it is relevant to me but it is not in my control. I am only a victim here. I know nothing really~~

3/ You tell me: You are the leader/boss/manager/consultant/coach, you know better, so YOU should know.   

4/ Yes, but…. : Yes I know it is on me, but I am not ready to handle that. Because I need to have XYZ first so I can blah blah blah…

So how do you remove this roadblock?

Here are some powerful questions I’ve seen in my supervision and private practice. They are especially useful to declutter your mind and open up your thinking.  

1/ How would you know?

It enables you to search resources and information you need to figure out what exactly the answer is. You may not get a clear answer right away, but it shifts you from a static state to an active state, and triggers you to come up with a solution.

2/ When can you know?

A great question for procrastinators – if this is you, you know a strict deadline will help. Committed to a time-sensitive task helps you to focus on the here and now, instead of a vague long-term vision. Adding an accountability partner for your goals can even help you to increase your success rate to 95% 

3/ Do you want to know?

This provokes personal agency and ownership. It can push you to the corner, so you have to face the,  maybe not so beautiful, truth.  

4/ Who knows?

The only time I will recommend using this question is for transactional analysis. If the core issue involves other stakeholders rather than yourself and you have been beating yourself up, it is time to look at your relationship with them and stop overbearing. Learning to let go is also an important lesson for your wellbeing, not just your leadership.

5/ What do you need to know?

Say it is indeed your job to be in the know, how much do you need to know exactly? The fact “I don’t know” is probably reflecting “I just know partially.” By getting the clarity around what is most relevant to you, you can focus on actionable clarifications and address them. 

6/ What happens when you don’t know?

Everyone gets stuck sometimes but those who remain are the ones who don’t see what they are missing. Don’t think there is no price for your inaction – Same for your “not knowing”. When you realize the consequences, you may want to take action right away. 

So there you have it. These powerful questions are strong and effective, however, they need to be used with compassion – Otherwise it may sound aggressive and can easily put the listeners in a defensive mode. If you apply them to yourself, don’t forget to be gentle with yourself too. They should help you to understand what is holding you back so you can act on it – not just feel bad about it.

Have you heard of any questions above? Or other ways to handle “I don’t know”? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Business Entrepreneurship Leadership

Leave a Comment