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2010 May

“I don’t know the answer to that.”

I have a really smart, very successful coaching client we’ll call Leslie. She is used to knowing a lot of things. In fact, I would say she is used to being “a knower of things” in her field. She has many other admirable qualities, of course, she’s politically savvy, hard-working, and big-hearted.

Luckily for Leslie she has a really smart, inquisitive four year old who asks her a lot of questions, like “why does Elmo talk like that?” and “why can’t we sing the theme song from Chicago really loud at daycare?”

Leslie has developed the habit of saying “I don’t know the answer to that” to her son when he asks one of his fabulous questions. And she doesn’t feel bad about it – and her son doesn’t either. He just comes up with another question.

However, at work it’s a different story. Leslie feels tremendous pressure to know how to solve any problem that crosses her path, even, and maybe especially, things that others aren’t even quite aware are problems…yet. During a particularly stressful week, I asked her whether she could say “I don’t know the answer to that” at work. I suggested that this could be a powerful response – giving her colleagues an opportunity to pause, reflect on the question, find other sources of help or information.

She was (rather uncharacteristically) quiet for a minute. I imagined her toes lined up with the rim of the Grand Canyon as she considered her options. “Well…I guess I could try…”

Does this have the ring of familiarity for you? Do you have a hard time admitting to yourself when you don’t know something? Or how to do it “right?” Or what success might look like at this new level?

I can relate – I know I “prefer not” to admit my not-knowing-ness. And yet, if I’m not willing to line my own toes up with that Canyon’s edge I will not learn anything new, I will not move on to the next question, like Leslie’s son, I will soon find life stale and dull. And so will others’ around me.

So, you find yourself wrestling with a tough question, simply say “I don’t know the answer to that” and find out what the next question might be. Leslie did, and it started to bring down her stress level.