Last year I noticed something about myself. When someone asked me a question that I didn’t want to engage in, I responded without thinking. Whether it was because I was distracted, I didn’t really care about what they were asking, I was in a rush, or I genuinely didn’t know the answer to their question, the answer was always the same.
A question about the inner workings of Outlook. A question about how much stock to put in a Bolognese sauce. A question about why roosters cock-a-doodle-doo. A question about what’s happening to the Cathedral. A question about what Mum might like for her birthday. All the same.
It’s comes out as a blunt, “I don’t know”. A seemingly innocuous phrase centres the conversation around my knowledge and often puts a halt to developing the inquiry further, to learn something new together.
Because I think when I said it, and when I say it now, “I don’t know” actually means, “I don’t care”.
For me, it’s a politer, more socially acceptable way of saying, “I’m not interested in what you’re asking about; please find the answer yourself and stop bothering me with your questions.”
I used the phrase to absolve myself of the responsibility of helping this person to find the answer. Their problem, not mine.
I came to this conclusion somewhere between James MacKay Hut and Saxon Hut on the Heaphy Track when we walked it over Easter in 2018r. I was probably asked something innocent by JCB about the colour of the flower we’d seen, the design of one of the huts or how the pockets were sewn on my tramping pack. I honestly can’t remember what it was.
The combination of aching legs, low blood sugar and frustration at my own lack of knowledge led me to speak before I thought, and out came this blinder:
“I don’t know. Why would I know? Why does it even matter? I don’t care.”
There, in all its glory, my hangryness spoke for itself, and the truth came out.
If I’d been allowed to get away with that answer, I wouldn’t have learned what I did. JCB’s humble answer came from behind me and showed me what I had so obviously missed. He quietly said, “I know you don’t know. I was just interested in what you think.”
And he was absolutely right. We couldn’t check Google, look in a book or phone a friend. All we had was each other, the incredible tussock-hilled landscape and the path ahead of us. I thought I was expected to give the correct answer, but all he wanted me to do was tell him what I thought. JCB had made a bid, and I’d shut him down. When I said, “I don’t know”, it made the answer about me. It turns out, I didn’t have to be right.
Since that stark realisation, I have consciously been trying to break this habit. When I truly don’t know what I’m being asked about, I’ve reframed my answer. I’ve landed on the phrase, “I’m not sure.” Ideally, it’s best said with a question at the end of it:
“I’m not sure, shall I look up the date for you?”
“I’m not sure, shall we give her a ring?”
“I reckon $250 is enough… but I’m really not sure. Is that reasonable to you?”
“I’m not sure about that one. What do you think?”
The question-asker has invited me into a conversation of shared knowledge. They have asked something of me that we can both find out about, and both be better off for knowing. And when you think about it, the fact that they asked me means they thought I knew in the first place – a rather kind compliment, really.
So here, I’m trying to change my habit. To catch my intentions before I speak. To mean what I say. To turn towards. To involve the other person. To care.
Here, it starts with three simple words.