I Love It… But Not Always

“I don’t know.”

I both love and despise this response as an answer to questions.

I love this answer for its honesty.  When someone is asked a question that they do not have the knowledge to answer, this is a superb response, versus simply making something up or faking it in an effort to look bad in front of others.  In this scenario, “I don’t know” shows humility as well as the ability to be comfortable with the fact that you don’t have all the answers.  It also shows a willingness to receive input and ideas from others who have more knowledge in an area that you do.  It also shows that you’re teachable and eager to grow.

I despise “I don’t know” when it’s quickly thrown out as a default response simply because someone doesn’t want to expend the effort to give thought to a questions they have been asked.  Using “I don’t know” as the go to response is a great way to kill a conversation.  Imagine you’re having a conversation with someone you just met and, an effort to get to know them you ask them what they like to do if they had a free day to themselves.  If they immediately respond with, “I don’t know”, and that it, where do you go from there?  These 3 simple words can quickly slam shut the door of conversation.

Here’s the worst part about the default response of, “I don’t know.  When someone asks for our thoughts or opinion about a topic as input for a decision and we respond with “I don’t know”, we are willingly handing over our ability to make or influence a decision to other people.  For me, the thought of willingly allowing other people to always think and make decisions for me is not appealing.  As such, when asked for my opinion or input, I always want to at least have a thought that I can respond with, whether complete or not yet formed.  This keeps me active in the decision making process, versus allowing other people to do my thinking for me.

Like most things in life, responding with “I don’t know” requires discernment.   There are times when this is the right answer, and other times when this response is best avoided.  One way to help discern your use of this response is to ask yourself, “Am I replying with ‘I don’t know’ because I don’t want to think, or am I responding with it because I honestly don’t know?”

If your answer to this question is the latter, then congratulations!  You’re putting yourself on the path to increase your understanding of the topic.  If however, your answer to this question is the former, consider a different response.

You Can Tell A Lot From A Little

Consider the following sentence:

“After work, he bought his wife some roses.”

By reading these 8 simple words, we very quickly learn quite a bit of information about this person.  For example, we know this person:

  • Is a male
  • Is married
  • Has some disposable income to buy flowers
  • Is thinking of his wife
  • Has a job

In addition to these details, our sentence also generates a number of questions for us, such as:

  • Why is he buying flowers for his wife?
  • How long have he and his wife been married?
  • Where does he work?
  • What does he do at his job?
  • How old are these 2 people?
  • Does he buy his wife flowers often?
  • Will his wife appreciate the flowers?

In just 8 simple words we now know a decent amount about this person and have several questions to ask that would help us learn even more about him and his wife.

So what, right?  I mean, that’s nice and all, but what does that have to do with anything, and who really cares?  Consider this…

Every day we exchange numerous sentences with other people through digital forms like text, email, social media, as well as through old-fashioned verbal communication.  Therefore, every day we receive a great deal of information about the people we interact with.  If you want to become better at connecting with people, or become a better listener, this information provides a great starting point to do so.

Begin paying attention to what people are saying.  Listen for the facts, but also keep your radar up for the questions you can ask that will help take the conversation deeper.  And when you have a question, ask it.  These are the initial steps in connecting with others.

I’m not saying you have to do this with every conversation you have, but if you’re looking to make a connection or build a relationship with someone, this is a great way to start.

Let Others Go First

So what do you do when you’re in a meeting or a conversation with someone, and each of you has something important to say or share?  Do you start talking over each other until one participant gives up and lets the other continue?  Do you minimize the other person’s position or topic and stress the importance yours until they finally “realizes” that they need to be quiet and consider themselves “blessed” to be hearing your thoughts and opinions?  No, those are bad suggestions.

Instead, I would suggest that you let the other person go first.

It’s tough, waiting to share a great idea or information with others.  Especially when it’s something you’ve put a lot of time and thought into.  You’re excited by the work you’ve done and want to share it with others.  However, it’s important to realize the other person is just as eager to share their idea with you.

Here’s why I suggest letting the other person go first:  If you go first, they won’t really be listening to you, because they will be preoccupied waiting for an opportunity to share their thought.  For me, I’d rather let someone go first and have their full attention as I go second.

Here some suggestions to keep in mind when letting someone go first:

  • Jot down what you want to share so you don’t forget.
  • Invite the other person to go first by saying something like, “I’ve got a thought on this, but I’d like to hear your take first. What do you think?”
  • Actually listen to what they say.  If you fake it, and just pretend to listen, they’ll know, and you can expect likewise when it’s your turn.
  • Ask for feedback or clarification you might need on what they said.
  • When it’s you turn, point out any similarities or places where your thoughts intersect with the other person’s.

Letting the other person go first doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have their undivided attention, but at least you’ll increase the likelihood of having it.  And if they are totally checked out or disinterested in what you’re saying, that’s a strong signal as to their potential involvement or support for your idea, which is good to know, because you can then look for others to share your idea with who would be more supportive.

Ultimately, others go first is about paving the way for better communication with others, and increasing the probability of being heard by others, as well as hearing them.

So give it a try in the weeks ahead.  When you have the opportunity, let someone else go first and see what happens.  My hunch is that not only will more of your ideas get heard, the other person will appreciate the respect you showed them by letting them go first, and listening to what they said.