I Don’t Know

During the week, our house is busy with the hum of meetings. The girls join their remote classes throughout the day. All day long, I hear the voices of children discussing different subjects. Some subjects they know a lot about; other subjects they don’t.

While they are discussing books and science and history, I’m also on calls and in virtual meetings. My colleagues and I come together to discuss different subjects. Some subjects we know a lot about; other subjects we don’t. The girls and I work in these parallel worlds, talking with our peers about things we know and don’t know.

I notice one thing is strikingly different between our meetings. In discussions between elementary school students, I hear lots of small voices saying, “I don’t know.” During the meetings I’m part of, there is usually an overwhelming absence of not-knowing. Instead, any questions are responded to with quick and confident answers.

I wonder why, as we get older, it becomes so hard to say, “I don’t know.” Perhaps it is that we view our professional role as a requirement that we should be an expert. That we should give an answer – something, anything.

Yet, part of being a professional in any field is acknowledging that we have some answers – but not all. Saying “I don’t know” is something to celebrate. It gives us space to figure out how to find the answer together. It acknowledges that most of the time, there isn’t an endpoint to knowledge in an area. It helps us approach new ideas with openness – or bring in others whose points of view might be helpful.

I’m impressed by the intellectual humility of children, who unabashedly declare they don’t know. These children are the most confident people of all. They are the ones willing to admit there is sometimes – even often – a knowledge gap. Children are quick to admit that they need more information or chime in with a “why?” or “that doesn’t make sense” to dig even deeper into their not-knowing. In saying they don’t know, they demonstrate they are interested in becoming someone who does know.

Author: Alyssa Forcehimes, PhD

An expert in behavior change, substance use disorders and empathic communication, Dr. Alyssa Forcehimes serves as President of The Change Companies® and Train for Change Inc.® She lives in Arizona with her husband and two daughters.