At the dawn of our now 28-year relationship, two years before the "I dos," my future husband opened the trunk of my car and asked, "Why is there kitty litter in there?" One of the qualities of this man I was falling in love with was his MacGyver-like skills. The guy was so handy. How could he not know why there was kitty litter in my trunk! "Because, when the road is slippery, it weighs the car down and keeps it from skidding" I replied with a distinct air of superior knowledge. "But," he calmly replied, "it's front-wheel drive. If you weigh down the rear, you're working against the power of the front tires." The guy had a point.
You see, the real reason I kept kitty litter in the trunk of my car was that years before my dad told me to and I vaguely remember the rationale being something about traction. Now, it could've been an old habit of my dad's from rear-wheel drive days or that he figured I might need to pour it on snow or ice should my tires get stuck. The point is, I thought I knew so I stopped asking. Once I told myself "I know," learning anything more on the topic ceased.
Saying "I know" is a sure-fire way to stop learning in its tracks. We've just assured our brains no further effort is needed. Shut down the curiosity machine - time to divert energy to other ruminations like, "what's for dinner?" or "what species is Baby Yoda?" And yet, we use those two words or variations of them so much. When asked if we need directions or help, our first inclination is to reply, "No thanks. I got this." Someone shares a fact - enlighting, trivial, or banal - and we say, "I know. Right!"
Why? Why is our tendency to appear more knowledgeable than we are? Why are we so quick to short the mental exploration into the unknown? Is it that we think our curiosity will be perceived as a lack of competence? Maybe it's our brains' way of protecting us. After all, learning requires neurons to fire along new pathways - that takes work! But, think of the consequences of not keeping our minds open to possibilities! How many opportunities, revelations, and innovations have been left to languish - untapped gold a foot deeper than the miner dug! How many eager ideators have walked away rebuffed by someone else's "I know."
Leaders, the three words we must all be OK saying are "I don't know." They are scary words for many reasons. They reveal our vulnerability - the reality that we do not possess all answers. They humble us to our humanity - our need for and dependence on others. We loathe admitting we do not know for fear we may not seem confident or credible.
Here is the truth. Our credibility comes more from the questions we ask than from the information we spout. People do not care what we know until they know how much we care. We demonstrate that caring when we tune our ears and open our minds to what others have to say. Seeking first to understand before trying to be understood. The place where our expertise ends is the starting line for another's brilliance to run free. Saying those three scary words, "I don't know," unleashes a torrent of learning, sharing, and growth for you and the people in your care. Be brave leaders - dare to not know!