The 3 Words That Can Make or Break Progress

When I worked with a life coach earlier this year, she recorded every session and sent them to me at the end of each session. If you've never had the opportunity to hear a recording of yourself cry, lash out at or defy someone trying to help you, or just shut down altogether, well, you're in good company, because neither have I. I've never listened to a single recording she's sent me. I'm 99% sure I would die of embarrassment hearing audio of me acting like a child.

Despite having never listened to these recordings, there are certain sessions I can recall with frightening clarity because they were mile markers, sharp turns in the road in our work together. I was being particularly petulant one day, not participating fully in the activity at hand (this behavior always frustrates me as I am paying someone to help me, and yet...). No matter what she asked me, my answer to every question was without hesitation, "I don't know." Instead of continuing on in this manner any longer, she stopped the conversation to address what I was doing.

That day, I learned how powerful "I don't know" is.

Here's how it works for me:

"I don't know" as a negative

Used in its negative form, like my experience with my life coach that day, "I don't know" becomes counterproductive. I was being combatant and unhelpful, and we weren't getting anywhere. 

That experience would mark a change, at least for me, in our work together and how I approached "I don't know" moving forward. Despite my affinity for having all the answers, I had actually gotten into a bad habit of saying, "I don't know" to any question I wasn't comfortable addressing, usually something emotionally raw or painfully old; basically anything that would require me to dig deeper or to make a change.

When I say "I don't know" when I do know, I shut the conversation down. It cannot proceed any further. The person on the other end is left hanging with a one-sided conversation. It's unfair. When someone won't engage in the conversation, no progress is made, no growth is achieved, and definitely no questions are answered. It's a bleak and fearful place where we hide from accountability for our lives and our answers.


"I don't know" as a positive 

Used in its more positive form, "I don't know" is completely freeing. "I don't know" unties us from perfection and from having to know it all. It frees us to learn more and to allow others an opportunity to share their knowledge.

I used to completely panic when someone asked me a question to which I didn't know the answer, especially at work. I felt like I should know the answer to every conceivable question on the planet, and if I didn't, then everyone would know I was a fraud. The pressure was significant and part of the reason I had such severe anxiety. So much of my value was wrapped up in having all the answers. 


Today, if I don't know the answer, I can say, "I don't know," and get on with finding the answer. I am not valueless for not knowing. It just means I don't know. From that place, opportunity arises: opportunity for me to learn something new and opportunity for someone else to teach me something. Paradoxically, I believe that what we don't know makes what we do know that much more credible. When we admit we don't know everything, or even just something, we are also saying, I am teachable. 

It takes courage to get honest, to trade in "I don't know" for "This is hard for me because..." or "I'm not sure, can you help me?" "I don't know" can be a tool for growth, an opportunity creator, and a mechanism for embracing humility. But "I don't know" can also be an immobilizer, a roadblock, and an impediment to progress.

Forward progress is what I'm about today. I want my "I don't know"s to be inspired, quests to learn more, not attempts to run from answers that are already within me anyway.