The Power of Not Knowing by Nicholas Wai


After reading James Clear’s blog last month on how to read more by reading just 20 pages per day every day, I was inspired to put this into action and kick started the new habit with Leah Hager Cohen’s I Don’t Know. At 114 pages it took me a week to finish, for which I am very happy about. Even more so, I took away something which is highly relevant to me as a professional coach.

What would that be, you might ask. Cohen explores one simple question: “Why are we so reluctant to admit our ignorance about something, when we actually don’t know?” Using a few examples with explanations based on social and psychological research, she suggested that we were probably conditioned quite early on to behave like this. Imagine there was this little boy, probably at infant school, when a teacher asked a question to the class and he just answered “I don’t know” because he genuinely didn't know! What came back was not a response that encourages or acknowledges his honesty, but more likely something like this: “How could you not know the answer to this simple question!!! I bet your younger sister will be able to give me the answer.” From that single experience, what do you think would happen to this child, and to the others who didn’t answer out loud but also didn’t know the answer? He would probably feel embarrassed, may be even ashamed that he didn’t know the answer to something even his little sister could answer, or even felt guilty that he hadn’t studied harder.

From now on, even when being asked something that he would absolutely have no reason to know the answer to, he would be very reluctant to be the first to shout “I don’t know”. And for the others, out of fear of being subjected to the same fate, he or she might choose silence over honesty. As this boy becomes an adult and is now working in an organization, he may still react similarly

  • in situations where he is facing someone in power and authority, or
  • if he is the power and authority, because he thinks he have to maintain an image of know it all (though always in fear of being “found out”), or
  • because he just wants to spare the feelings of others (especially family members or close friends) or
  • to simply avoid conflict when he actually does not agree with someone (so he pretends to agree or remains silent rather than pointing out that he may not know the whole story)

And these reactions are mostly unconscious. Because of the potential costs and pain, telling the truth becomes an act of courage that requires fighting their automatic instincts.

Did you see yourself behaving this way in some of the situations you operate in when you were reading the last paragraph? Are you still unconsciously reacting to some ancient experience that protect you from pain and fear? How does this affect your effectiveness as a coach or as a leader? What would be more effective?

One of the most valuable support we can offer our clients is the space to create awareness and explore new behaviours. Just by saying: “I don’t know, but I think there is something interesting here. Would you like to explore that?”, we are respectfully informing our client that when he/she is ready to give him/herself permission to be uncertain and vulnerable they are being listened to in a confidential and non-judgmental space where they can open the door to new insights and possibilities. Being in the mindset of not knowing and playfully curious, we would also open ourselves up to be more ready for greater understanding and compassion for our clients. As suggested by Cohen, could we honestly say we know exactly how the other feel? We might have a general idea as we’re good at being empathetic, but we’d never really know how  exactly they felt. If we think we do we are robbing our clients of the opportunity to really spell out and examine their inner feelings, which are quite often hidden or ignored, and will show up in unexpected ways or time. So, in a way, maintaining a state of not knowing should be one of the basic skills of an effective coach.

Food for thoughts:

  • Can you think of a time when you should have said “I don’t know” rather than remain silence? If you could have relive that moment, what would you choose to do?
  • What’s the benefits of being always in the know? What’s the cost? How would this examination affect your actions in the future?
  • If you are to read 20 pages of a book every day, which book would you read? When will you start?