The word “ignorance” is often misused. This misuse may be most common in rural environments where I find it is used to imply lack of intelligence instead of, correctly, lack of knowledge.
Strangely, it seems that the word “ignorance” is commonly misused out of ignorance.
I submit, however, that ignorance is not necessarily bad. We are all ignorant about many things. But we can learn when we need to (or when we want to) and replace ignorance with knowledge.
In meetings I often see people make a horrible mistake in how they communicate about a topic. I see people that are ignorant on a topic yet pretend they are knowledgeable. Maybe they think they can “fake it ’till they make it.” Or perhaps they really believe they are an expert when they aren’t. Whatever the case, they often look foolish and don’t even realize it.
Why do people do this? A number of reasons, the most common of which is self-esteem issues. They are more afraid of looking uninformed than possibly looking foolish. Now, they likely won’t admit this, even to themselves. For others, the emotional need to project how smart they are overpowers awareness of their own true level of knowledge.
It is for these reasons that one of the most powerful statements one can make is, “I don’t know.”
Embrace, at least for the moment, your ignorance. A sincere “I don’t know” can show a healthy confidence and self-awareness. It denotes openness to learning. It allows an opportunity to move the discussion to others and allow them to shine.
Granted, there are times that “I don’t know” is an admission of a failure to properly prepare, such as failing to read a book assignment for a class. In these cases, the statement is not powerful. It is an admission of choosing ignorance. So the phrase is not a “get out of jail free card,” just a useful state of mind when done in a healthy, self-awareness.
With this in mind, here are Five Great Ways to Make “I Don’t Know” even More Powerful:
1. “I don’t know but I will find out.”
2. “I don’t know but I will find out and let you know by 5 pm.”
3. “I don’t know but I know who does and will get them involved.”
4. “I don’t know for sure, but here is what I think and I will get confirmation on this for you.”
5. “I don’t know this. Can you help me?”
I’m sure you can think of some great ways too! Ignorance is inherent in all of us. There is no way we can be knowledgeable of all topics. It is how you understand and deal with ignorance (yours and others) that helps you build your value as a trusted advisor.