The Three Hardest Words
September 1, 2021
When I was a kid, my dad used to tell me that the three hardest words in the English language were, “I don’t know.” I happen to think these are still difficult words for many people to say. No one wants to look or feel stupid and most folks like to be helpful.
This conundrum of not being able to own up to not knowing is especially annoying when asking a store employee or service representative something they don’t know the answer to, but instead of saying they don’t know, they give you wrong information, which can lead you down a rabbit hole to nowhere.
I often wonder what causes people to give inaccurate information when their job is to be helpful. Is it ego? Pride? Is it lack of training? Culture? Do most of us go through life never learning to say “I don’t know, but I can find out for you”?
There are instances where we want someone to find and provide the answers to our questions and there are other instances where we don’t actually want an answer, we just want someone to explore the topic with us. For example, in friendships, partnerships, company brainstorms, or professional relationships which explore the deeper queries in life, such as therapists or energy workers.
I used to be a big fan of Sex and the City and as I think about the articles Carrie Bradshaw wrote, I remember that she often ended her essays with questions. She didn’t have, or even pretend to have, all the answers. She and her readers were on a search, together, for some of the answers to life’s mysteries.
I used to often find myself wanting to have the answers for other people because I wanted to be of service and have an offering, but as I reflected, I realized that my value in relationships doesn't come from knowing the answers. Sometimes my personal value in the situation stems from identifying the problem and allowing others to come to their own conclusions or finding the answers together. Sometimes my place is to be an open and listening ear.
Teamwork, if you will.
But for a long time, I thought I had to know the answers in order to be valuable. I thought if I knew enough, people would take me seriously. I even thought I needed to be able to relate to other people by talking about my own experiences in relation to whatever they were talking about. As I have grown older, I have come to know that I don’t need to relate my own experiences to others. In fact, I think it’s often times better to just listen and not tell your own story about the subject matter because it takes away from the other person’s moment. Listening can be enough. Being present with someone is enough.
Nobody has all the answers so why did I ever feel I needed to? I’m not quite sure why or when this idea of being an all-knowing oracle entered my subconscious, but I am glad it has come to the surface of my conscious mind because the first step to change is awareness that a change needs to be made!
I find myself saying “I don’t know” more than ever. If I need to provide an answer for my clients, I’m no longer afraid to say “I don’t know, but I will find out for you.” I’m happy not always knowing because it means there’s always so much more I can learn. My ego has finally taken a back seat. I’m okay with not being the smartest one in the room.
What was once hard for me--saying “I don’t know,” has now become somewhat of a pleasure. I feel free from the bondage of self every time I utter those three words. Not knowing doesn’t mean I’ll never know, it simply means I can try and find out. Not knowing doesn’t mean I can’t be there for someone else in their time of need. Not having the right words doesn’t mean I can’t still be a source of comfort for someone else.
From Buddha to Jesus to Kendrick, we are instructed to be humble. I think practicing the “three hardest words” is one way to begin cultivating humility--or at least getting comfortable with the idea of not being in the know. This phenomenon of growing older and realizing one knows a trivial amount of all there is to know is as old as reason itself. As Aristotle said over 2500 years ago, “The more you know, the more you know you don't know.”