The ability to say “I don’t know” is a common trait of highly intelligent people.
But it’s not always easy. When your boss turns to you in the middle of a team meeting and asks whether you think a new product would be successful, you’d be hard pressed to shrug your shoulders and say you’ve got no idea.
The key to looking smart by revealing your ignorance is showing that you’re willing to find the answer.
That’s according to research highlighted in a 2014 Freakonomics podcast, “The Three Hardest Words in the English Language.”
In the episode, hosts Stephen Dubner and Stephen Levitt, authors of the popular behavioural economics book “Freakonomics,” explain that we often feel like we’re expected to know the answer to every question right away. But admitting that you don’t know the correct response allows you to say you’re willing to learn and experiment until you find it.
“Let’s be clear: Simply saying ‘I don’t know’ isn’t a solution,” Dubner said. “It’s just a first step. You have to figure out what you don’t know — and then work like a dog to learn.”
Levitt called the alternative — feigning knowledge — counterproductive.
“It might keep your job for another week or another month, it might make people think you are good, but that’s not the point,” Levitt said. “Really, the goal is to be good and to improve and to learn and to make things better. And the only way to do that is to start by saying, ‘I don’t know.'”
So how exactly do you tell your boss that you don’t know something — and communicate that you won’t rest until you figure it out?
In response to the podcast, one former naval officer wrote in to the Freakonomics blog. He said when he didn’t know the answer to a question, he was taught to tell his superiors, “I’ll find out.” (Of course, then he actually had to find the answer ASAP.)
And over at Forbes, Kristi Hedges highlights several ways to confidently say, “I don’t know.” One possibility is to say, “That’s an important question, and I don’t want to give you a half answer. Let me get back to you on that by end of day.” Or you can simply admit that you’re still working toward a solution: “Let me tell you what I know, and what I’m still learning.”
The idea is to show that you’re invested in solving the problem — and not just trying to impress your coworkers with your fake knowledge.
“If you actually care about the outcome and the truth,” Levitt said, “saying ‘I don’t know’ is critical.”
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