by Dr. Elliott Kronenfeld

One of the more common experiences I have is watching someone struggle with the pressure to always have an answer or response in a high value discussion.  It can be so disconcerting when someone is asking our opinion, looking for our agreement, or an explanation and we feel we cannot give it.  We can immediately feel so many challenging feelings such as being trapped, exposed, pressured, and judged.  The immediate sense of wanting to shut down the moment can be intense.

One of the most common responses to inquiry I hear in my work is “I don’t know”.  This is usually paired with a look of either avoidance or discomfort.  This is the moment when someone may feel stuck.  Perhaps this answer is to buy time – to kick the can down the road or get off the hotseat.  Oftentimes, this answer is to create a sense of security, to avoid a fight.  It might be reactive because someone feels they have run out of options.  It really does not matter what the question is, I always love this answer.

Many people may think the “I don’t know” answer is an ending, a roadblock, a stalemate.  I think the opposite.  I think “I don’t know” is a great opening.  It is a start to exploration.  “I don’t know” is the most powerful answer.

My immediate response to “I don’t know” is curiosity.  “What don’t you know?”  Admitting that we do not have the answer also means that there are new options, answers, resources, considerations that might bring new perspectives.  It creates a space holder that gives more time for learning, reflection, questioning, reflections.  We get more time to evaluate.  Naming the confusion or lack of insight will often identify a pathway forward as it talked about.

There are many times that the “I don’t know” response requires exploration and time to reflect before forward movement can happen.  If more time is needed, be sure to allow time for the processing.  However, I also recommend setting a date/time to come back and revisit the topic so that it does not languish in the land of “I don’t know”.  “I don’t know” is a wonderful opening but should not be the ending!

What is critical about “I don’t know” is that we do not rest on it.  Name it.  Own it.  And then, engage it!  The journey of “I don’t know” often reveals that the question that prompted the response was not the important question.  When engaging in the answer, I often find that the confusion or challenge is rooted in something else.  For example, talking to a couple about whether they wanted to have another child, one partner kept saying “I don’t know”.  The other partner was trying to get a “yes” answer.  When exploring the “I don’t know” the real challenge for the first partner, it was discovered that they had a fear that they would never get to slow down their career.  Once this was known, a plan could be made to address the concerns and the couple could move forward.

When you come across the “I don’t know” response in yourself or another, take the moment and ask the core question: “What don’t you know?”  Open the door to possibility!  Do not let the answer be a source of frustration, but an invitation for more connection. Expanding “I don’t know” is truly using intention and curiosity as strategic relationship skills!

To learn more about how to stay in a place of openness, contact Dr. Elliott Kronenfeld at [email protected]



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