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  • Writer's pictureKristen Herring-Asleson

Did You Really Just Say, "I Don't Know"?

Have you ever walked into a convenience or department store looking for a specific item or service? The answer to this is a resounding “yes,” I would assume. And, in response, have you ever been looked at with a blank stare followed closely by the words, “I don’t know.”

This response is incredibly frustrating to the customer who may be in a hurry or need something emergently, not to mention it is less-than-helpful. When it comes to the workplace and many workplace scenarios, simply staying, “I don’t know” is less than professional. In addition, it can make one look inexperienced and unprepared.

You may be thinking, “Well, yes, but how can one prepare for the unexpected or a question that might not be so common?” With a few examples, you will catch on quickly.

Let’s take, for instance, a woman who is expecting a child and attending an ultrasound appointment. The radiologist is performing a routine examination when the woman notices a “funny” look fall across the radiologist’s face. The natural question for the expectant woman would be, “What’s wrong?” Can you imagine an “I don’t know,” being the response?

Or, take me, for instance. As my breast cancer was being discovered I bombarded my caretakers with questions but only received “I don’t know,” from certain ones. In both of these instances, the response of “I am not the best person to answer that,” would give the impression that one cares and will help find the person who is best to answer the questions raised. This is the best approach to use when faced with a question you are not allowed or informed enough to answer.

Pretend, on the other hand, you do know all the information but are unable to share all of the details. How should you respond? By saying, “Here’s what I can tell you,” and sharing enough to appease the person asking is the perfect comeback. This strategy keeps the topic top-of-mind and gives the opportunity for the answers to be shared by the appropriate person.

If you are employed at a gas station, convenience or department store and asked a simple question such as, “Where would I find the infant cough syrup?” Saying, “I am not sure, but let me help you find it,” shows you care enough about not only your customer but your job as well. What a great way to provide customer service while learning on the job.

Over the course of these past few weeks, I have been tasked with creating podcasts by editing a video, removing the “ums” and “uhs” and producing a polished audio file. The podcasts are for a well-known financial adviser who interviews investors who meet with founders needing capital for the company they wish to form.

As one who has always believed the words “I don’t know” do not belong in the workplace, I have learned differently. In some cases, when looking to raise capital, investors look more favorably in helping and coaching someone who can admit they do not know versus someone who acts as if they know it all.

So, for the most part, saying “I don’t know,” is still not the best answer, but honesty is still usually the best policy. Choosing your words wisely makes all the difference in the world when it comes to building and maintaining trusting relationships whether it be between doctors and patients, customers and store employees or coworker to coworker.

Always inspire confidence to those asking, and you will have satisfied people surrounding you; not ones who want to “speak with the manager,” about you being less-than-helpful.

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