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Saying “I Don’t Know”: How 3 Words Will Improve Interpersonal Relationships

April 17th, 2009 No comments

If there is one thing in life that I am beginning to understand, it may be this – nearly all people, no matter who they are, what they do, or how much responsibility they have, seem to have an incorrigible tendency to think they know everything about anything.
Now, the last statement may sound a bit broad, perhaps sweeping, but think about the enormity of interactions you have had throughout your life thus far. After deliberating on this dubious and challenging statement for a minute, ask yourself the following three questions – ‘Have the majority of my interactions’:

a.   Consisted of me sharing knowledge as someone else genuinely listened?

b.   Consisted of me and someone else stubbornly butting heads?

c.   Consisted of someone else telling me the way it is and why I am irrefutably wrong?

            This may just be a shot in the dark, but my guess is that the answers (no, yes, yes) rung alarmingly true for the overwhelming majority of you as you finished reading the alphabetically sequenced questions.

            In this light, it may be simple for us to conclude that a great many human beings are quixotically pig-headed and self-righteous, wallowing, so to speak, in their own ‘intellectual muck’.

            Painting humanity with a pessimistic brush is not the intent here. Instead, it may be more prudent to believe that there is a tentative truth in the questions posed, the resultant answers, and the ‘hog analogy’.

            Indeed, our bi-pedaled species, for the most part, has a unique knack for knowing all and professing all to all who will endure and listen.

            It may just be our nature – it may just be our way. After all, does not the proverbial saying go something like “a leopard never changes its spots?” Or, human beings will always tend to be this way, especially when it comes to knowledge and the social competition that transpires during information exchange.

            Despite the value many old adages carry (like the leopard adage) – humans can change their spots whenever they want, no matter how small a change is being made. Keeping in mind that individual circumstances are diverse and varied, where some individuals, because of extraordinary adversity, require more time to make the necessary changes.

            With sensitivity to individual circumstance in mind, how does an individual make a committed and improved effort to quiet down, open their ears, and receive information from others without feeling the need to express how much they know?

In my most honest opinion, the answer to this question is – “I don’t know”.

            Just try saying it – “I don’t know”. Next time you are engaged in a conversation and somebody asks you a relatively simple or complicated question, just say “I don’t know”. Even if you are absolutely certain of the answer, still say “I don’t know”.

            After saying “I don’t know”, watch what happens! See how many people become more willing to open up and try out an authentic conversation with you. It really is unbelievable!

            More often than not, whether it is listening to someone else or answering a question, our general response or implied response is a bland and half-hearted “I know”. It is almost like we unknowingly lull ourselves into a deep sleep or go into conversational zombie mode (i.e.) – “I know, I know, yeah, yeah, I know, I know, so what, I know”. It is startlingly rhythmic when you rehearse it a few times.

            The main point here – how well does the “I know, I know” behavioral strategy serve you as you interact with others?

Probably not that well.

Just try it – try saying “I don’t know”.

            If you muster up the courage and believe enough in what you already know, you may find it easier and easier to sputter out – you know what – “I don’t know!”

            Needless to say, saying “I don’t know” is unacceptable sometimes, especially if important decisions must be made. Saying “I don’t know”, then, is context specific – wherever you deem it acceptable and applicable, try saying it.

            You may be amazed as to how much smoother and palatable your social life becomes. You may also find that people hold you in higher regard. After all, when you “don’t know” and you are being quiet, it is highly probable that you are now in a relaxed mode of listening – on your way to a sincere improvement in your relationships.

What about you – do you ever feel like the people around you always have all the answers?

Be good to yourself,

Matthew Polkinghorne

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