The value of “I don’t know”

Every time a senior employee or manager explained an idea with immense passion, I used to play along. My response to them would be, “Sounds great,” or “Makes sense!.” I’d signal my agreement by instantly jumping to discuss the next steps. Once the discussion gets over, I’d feel weird. I’d ask myself – “Did you mean all that you said in the meeting? Did you understand their proposal fully?”

I used to allow that feeling to pass.

Quite recently, I gathered the courage to confront myself. I realized that I was afraid of two things:

  • being called ignorant for asking follow-up questions
  • getting on the other person’s nerves for not agreeing with them immediately

It’s stupid. 

I thought agreeing blindly with someone was a much better position than risking the relationship with disagreements. However, this can only make things worse for both parties. 

  • the proposer will lack exposure to new perspectives
  • you’ll continue to remain ignorant and timid

A setup like this does not encourage a growth mindset. It leaves no room for nurturing each other. Your relationship with the proposer (manager or senior employee) will revolve around sycophancy and complacency. 

What can we do better?

Suppose you’re a person who requires some time to ponder over new ideas or prefer to engage in research before sharing your opinion. In that case, you’re a slow thinker who optimizes for clarity over urgency. And that’s fine. All you’ve got to do is nurture this side by being honest with yourself and the other person in the meeting.

Ask yourself if you understand:

  • the goal of the meeting
  • the main idea and its relevance in the context of your work
  • the gaps and constraints around it
  • the impact, dependencies, and timelines.

If your answer to the points mentioned above is a no, then ask follow-up questions.

  • Make sure your questions are open-ended, relevant, and conversational. It’s easy to digress and offer our two cents on irrelevant details that will not add value to the discussion. Sometimes we do that to sound smart. But honestly, nobody benefits from this except our ego, which safely lives in a giant bubble.
  • Once you’ve collected sufficient information and still need time to process it, you can openly tell them that. But do that only after sharing your understanding of the idea, its benefits, and the grey areas. Do this to ensure that you’ve paid attention to them.
  • You can then follow this up by asking for some more time to sleep on the idea and providing an approximate date on which you’d share your final thoughts with them.

By doing this, you’d not only gain the other person’s trust but also feel good about yourself for being intellectually curious and honest.

Admitting that you don’t know enough and acting on it is your secret weapon to excellence. Make use of it wisely.

P.S. If you’re the one proposing a new idea, check out this post on how you can communicate your ideas clearly.

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