The Three Smartest Words in the English Language

“He who knows best knows how little he knows.” –Thomas Jefferson

Last week we discussed the idea of talking less, while saying more–of giving prudence to what you say in the presence of others, as well as being open to more effective listening.

Indeed, being mindful of what one says, along with remaining open to the the viewpoints of others for shared understanding is a mark of humility and of leadership. Often, when a person does tend to talk more without saying much, it is because he is compensating for something–typically a lack of knowledge and experience in the topic pertinent to the situation at hand. Take for example a sales representative attempting to share a new product. He’s not as familiar with it as he would like to or should be, so under pressure he has a tendency to ramble on, even repeating the same expressions.

It reminds me some time ago when I was listening to a radio show hosted by clinical psychologist Dr. Ray Guarendi.  He was addressing the issue of  what makes an effective teacher, and pointed out to a caller that the best teachers he had, in his opinion, were those who didn’t present themselves as knowing everything. If a student had a question, and the teacher didn’t know the answer, it became that teacher’s opportunity to reply with what I refer to as the “three smartest words” in the English language:

“I don’t know.”

Let’s be honest: only the Almighty knows EVERYTHING. So why is it that so many of us, when faced with questions to which we do not have the answers, attempt to skirt around the issue and hide our ignorance? Often, we accelerate that revelation when we respond with BS (By the way, the expression “That’s a great question!” is a BS-stall tactic in my book.). What is so difficult in replying to such a question with the simple answer, “I don’t know”?

And in sales, the expression “I don’t know,” is usually followed up with the statement, “But I will find out for you.” In a classroom or other group setting, I might imagine a teacher or team leader tossing the question out to the group with the expression, “Does anyone here have an answer?”

Here are some additional things to consider when our answer is “I don’t know.”:

We reveal humility, not ignorance. So many of us are afraid of making ourselves vulnerable in the eyes of others. Is it classic insecurity? I don’t know! But when nurturing prosperous relationships and/or serving in a position of leadership, there is nothing greater than trust. That demonstration of honesty and humility has far greater value to this end, than giving off the perception that we have all the answers.

We show that we are aware of what we don’t know. Think about this for a moment: It reminds me of a brutally candid (and even entertaining) article that ran in the New York Times way back in 2000, at how incompetent people simply don’t know they are incompetent! “Duh?” you are thinking–but this article really scared me at the time! Could I be one of them and not know it? This was a minor epiphany in my life–it taught me to be mindful of my limitations, and aware of what I don’t know. It also brought to mind some very wise words my father shared with me when I was young: “No matter how good you become at something, son, sooner or later, you will run into another guy who does it better.”

We lower our stress. I am all for setting high standards and expectations, so long as they challenge me to grow and increase the value I can bring to others in a reasonable manner. But I stop short of pretending to be something I am not: I learned that lesson in my life a long time ago (don’t ask how long, ’cause I ain’t sayin’!). Those days of stressing myself out trying to be everything to everyone are over, and with the these three little words, they can be for you, too.

Finally, I describe the expression “I don’t know” as the “smartest” words primarily for the irony behind it. However, I really don’t believe that the willingness to acknowledge what one doesn’t know will convince anyone of how smart you are. Rather, it becomes an opportunity to demonstrate a gift that is far more sought after than knowledge. In fact, this gift is so valuable, that when God offered his servant King Solomon to grant him anything he would want, it’s what Solomon asked for (revealing that he unknowingly already possessed it – 1 Kings 3:4-12). How’s that for irony?

So, when we have the courage to respond “I don’t know,” we demonstrate something far more valuable than knowledge: wisdom.

1 Comment on "The Three Smartest Words in the English Language"

  1. And when politicians say “I’m glad you asked me that question,” you know they are stalling for time and about to answer the question they would like to have been asked, not the one they were asked.

    I have a different view from yours on the “That’s a good question” matter, Keith. When I’m coaching and the client says, usually quite thoughtfully, “That’s a good question”, I always feel she/he is getting value, because I have asked something they haven’t thought of or at least not in the way I’m indicating.

    Are you open to considering that it depends on the context and tone? “That’s a good question” can be, as you clearly view it, a glib fob off, or, thoughtfully, non-glibly, it can be a prelude to going deeper into thoughts or feelings about an important issue.

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