It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”

Mar 19, 2023

An article I recently read by Stephanie Vozza was entitled, “’I don’t know’ can be the smartest answer.”

This caught my eye because I have often used a similar saying, namely, “The most important thing that you can know is what you don’t know.”

Stephanie’s article goes on to address how this statement can be a lesson for leadership. As a mediator, I do not relate as much to the concept of leadership except to note that I am a leader of the mediation process. This often means taking the lead with my clients in helping you to have a constructive dialogue.

Being willing to admit that we don’t have the answer has multiple significances:

  1. A sign of humility. Conflict often arises when those who disagree are stuck in positions and often overlook what is really important to them. A conflict conversation can escalate when both of you are convinced that you are right because you think you know more than the other person. Isn’t it possible that you really don’t know the answer? When someone tells me that she/he “doesn’t know” or I say this to my clients (in responding to a specific question for which I don’t have the immediate expertise to answer), it’s an acknowledgment that we are being humble and honest. Truth and humility matter and can be constructive forces for meaningful dialogues.
  2. An invitation to explore and learn. My first instinct after saying “I don’t know” is to wonder how I can discover the answer. It’s also an opportunity to take steps to decide how to find those answers. The information source could be online or contact with someone who has specific knowledge and training related to the question.
  3. Assurance of accuracy and credibility. As one who believes that informed decision making is a fundamental goal of the mediation process, providing accurate information is essential. On the flip side, providing erroneous information can be damaging to anyone’s credibility and even to one’s reputation. Saying “I don’t know” is like being vaccinated against misleading the other person.
  4. A request for time. Sometimes, the questions we are asked are not seeking factual information. Instead, they are looking for general feedback or a response to a proposal. Some of us can respond in the moment (but sometimes regret not taking the time to think things over), and others need time to process. In mediation, respecting the needs of those who need time to process—so that they can respond thoughtfully and constructively—enhances the possibility of a mutually agreeable resolution. In this context, not knowing is a statement for the moment. With time, the well-thought-out answer may transform the discussion in ways that move the mediation process forward.

Knowing what you don’t know—and being able to communicate this to others—symbolizes truth, curiosity, openness and credibility—all of which can enhance the difficult conversations that take place in divorce mediation.

Knowing what you don’t know—and being able to communicate this to others—symbolizes truth, curiosity, openness and credibility—all of which can enhance the difficult conversations that take place in divorce mediation.