As professionals, as subject matter experts, we think we are in the business of knowing. This is one of the greatest traps we can fall into, and it blinds us to arguably an equally if not more important idea – what we don’t know. And actually, we aren’t at all in the business of knowing.


Hey, it’s Andrew, and this is Safety on Tap.

Since you’re listening in, you must be a leader wanting to grow yourself and drastically improve health and safety along the way.  Welcome to you, you’re in the right place.  If this is your first time listening in, thanks for joining us and well done for trying something different to improve! And of course, welcome back to all of you wonderful regular listeners.


How often do you say, ‘I don’t know’, or some variation of that?


For many of us, it’s far too little, and that’s a problem.


But it’s kind of understandable. We are taught from a young age that the space after a question must be filled with an answer. Not just any answer, but an answer which is complete, correct, and most of all as fast as possible. Think about some of the most popular game shows, from old to new (this will give away my age….), we marvel at contestants on TV shows like Sale of the Century, Family Feud, Jeopardy, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and The Chase.


Questions need immediate, complete, and correct answers right? We’ve been trained from school and TV shows that are success, right? Win a prize, get a good score, impress the teacher, get a good grade and some money from your Grandma……but life isn’t like that.


Let me ask you a question, maybe the kind of question that you’ve heard recently from someone in your organisation.


“What is the best kind of face mask to protect workers from Covid-19?”


So what’s your answer? Your quick-as-possible, complete, and correct answer?


What’s your answer? Is there one? Or many? Or does it depend, because you are kind of unsure about some bits, like what do they mean by best, which workers are they talking about, in what situations, and are they even really asking about face masks or about managing the risk of Covid-19 exposure?


Remember, you are the health and safety expert, employed by your organisation to provide expert advice. So what’s your advice, expert?


You can see that we are getting into a sticky situation. We are trained from a young age to have answers. We are employed as experts. We are under pressure to be seen as competent, and helpful contributors to our organisation. And because of this, we confuse factual questions with non-factual questions all the time.


So did I ask you a factual question, or a non-factual question?


This difference is not something question-askers consciously think about. Remember we live in a Google age, which lures us to believe that an answer is merely a few thumb taps away. The same goes for when people ask us questions. They don’t realise it, but they think they want an immediate, complete, and correct answer.


Except there are almost none of those in the world, and that’s not really what they want.


Did you know that good expert say I don’t know more often than the rest of us? One theory is that experts are more interested in the quality of response than the need for a junkie hit to the immediate gratification vein. And experts retain their expertise despite saying I don’t know more often.


It is universally true that everyone knows an infinitesimally small amount compared to what they don’t know. A grain of sand on a planet of beaches. A single drop in all the world’s oceans. And that’s on the factual knowledge side of the equation. On the non-factual knowledge side of the equation, exactly no one knows these things because they have some element of opinion, or speculation about something unknowable (like the exact causal factors in an incident) or something unknowable about the future (like will this strategy work?). Exactly no one knows these things.


When we think that we need immediate, complete, and correct answers, we are limiting ourselves to only the factual things we know, assuming a factual response is appropriate. Can you see how the odds are stacked against us? So instead of an immediate, complete, and correct response, we provide an immediate response and make it seem as complete and correct as possible, which is dangerous. I guarantee that you do that without even realising it.


So let’s not pretend.

I think you will become a better professional by saying I don’t know more often, in your own head and to others.  But what does that sound like exactly?

Here are three ‘I don’t knows’:   

Number 1, is the Frustrated I don’t know, usually reserved for exasperated parents.

Number 2, is the Embarrassed I don’t know, feeling caught out not knowing something you think someone expects you to know, like being put on the spot by the CEO. 

Number 3, is a curious I don’t know, it’s open, positive, and inviting.   

Frustrated or embarrassed I don’t know’s are places of weakness. 

But a curious I don’t know, at its heart, is powered by humility, and vulnerability.  I say powered because there is immense power in a curious I don’t know.  And you might just find that curious I don’t know will save you from frustrated or embarrassed I don’t know.   

So let’s go back to the purpose of questions, and our role as expert advisors. 

We’re going to flip the old school expectation of answers – immediate, complete, and correct, as a little framework for how we re-frame our ‘I don’t know’ responses.   

Our first job is to help the questioner, to deliver satisfaction.  This is not an immediate answer unless it is a clear, straightforward factual answer.  Like basic customer service, most of the time satisfaction sounds like this: ‘we don’t stock that (I don’t think that will be possible), what we can do is….’. 


‘I need some more information I don’t have to hand, I will call you back’

Taking responsibility for the customers question is key.  The first need of a questioner is to be heard, to have the question caught by someone who will help, not an immediate answer. 

If there is some genuine urgency about the question, then you will sense that, and it’s as simple as asking what the urgency or timeframe is.  ‘In an hour? Sure, I can do something by then’.  ‘By the end of the month? Absolutely’. 

Next comes completeness.   

Last year one part of a coaching engagement with a senior health and safety leader, was working on their goal to increase their knowledge about some specific technical topics in an industry which was new to them.  What we revealed was that this goal was not about increasing knowledge, which is more like being more correct, more factually full, but the real goal was to improve the degree of confidence they had about what they knew and didn’t know, to have better quality conversations with key stakeholders in their organisation, and to be able to engage in operational challenges more critically. 

And this is the crux of completeness in how we answer or advise.  It is never complete.  It can only grow, to strive to be more complete, but it will never be complete.  So it’s a relative thing – instead of thinking that an unanswered question is 0, and an answer is 1, and done, think about it as an unanswered question is 0, and an answer ranges from greater than 0 to infinity.

There is no better example of this, than a really core skill in business continuity and crisis response.  An old boss and mentor of mine John Doble taught me the power of asking two questions of someone providing an answer or making a decision in the midst of chaos:

1. how complete is the information you have to work with, and

2. how confident are you about this response or decision?

These are powerful things to make explicit, to talk about, to mull over, to come to grips with.  The Covid crisis has given us many examples of how we can and will proceed with low completeness, and low confidence – but we do so knowing that is the case.  Your I don’t know the response, is where you can take responsibility not for a fully complete answer, but simply by being clear about how complete it is or can grow to be.  

The degree of completeness depends on the urgency, the context, and what is at risk.  I’m going to help you frame up some specific kinds of responses beginning with I don’t know, in just a minute, but we need to address the last part of our I don’t know answer framework: correctness. 

The movie Robin Hood Men in Tights is a satirical spoof of Robin Hood Prince of Thieves.  It’s hilarious.  This Robin Hood’s band of merry men included a former servant of his family, who was blind.  They called him Blinkin.  As many of you will know, the Robin Hood story has Robin and his men hiding in Sherwood Forest, as fugitives, stealing from the rich to give to the poor.  So they would post sentries, men to keep watch for the Sherriff and his men.   

One night, Robin approaches the sentry post, a small tower, to find Blinkin standing at the top, hand over his brow, scanning out into the dark forest.  Remember he was blind. 

Robin Hood: “Blinkin…what are you doing up there?!

“Blinkin: “guessing, I guess no ones coming”

Robin: “Please come from there…twit”

In much of our work, the proportion of factual to non-factual questions is very low.  Only a tiny number of things can have a factual response with high certainty, and these days almost all of those answers can be looked up. 

So if most of the questions we face are non-factual, which means they are messy, complex, subjective or require some interpretation or exploration, then our answer should often be I don’t know.  Because you don’t, and no one does. 

I am a trained expert witness, to provide evidence in court.  One of the most important lessons we get taught is to be crystal clear about what I know, what I think, what I have experienced, and the boundaries of each of them.  Ethical professional practice is no different.   

The thing is that we are all kind of like Blinkin, looking out into the distance, the future, guessing what is or isn’t coming.  Robin Hood called Blinkin a twit for doing that….I’m not going to go that far, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?

So what do we do when we have so many non-factual questions coming at us, and we want to work out what might be correct? We shift our role from answer provider to explorer, experimenter, to facilitate some learning.   

An I don’t know response is not only true, but you create space for learning to happen, not merely apparently rescuing the questioner with an answer but stimulating a micro amount of growth so they are better because of the way you responded to the question.  My earlier example, talking about how customer service people respond, is a good one because you hear the question and recognise the questioner, but you can easily ask more questions to clarify.  That person I was coaching who wanted to increase knowledge….I had a hunch that wasn’t really the goal, so as coaches must do, I asked questions to explore and reveal the real goal, which was not the original question!

There are lots of ways to say good I don’t know the response, but here are a few you might want to try:

The Taking Stock response – I don’t fully know, but what I do know is….and you share some reflections on similar past experiences, knowledge or ideas.  You can also say I’m not sure, which is another way of opening up an I don’t know response. 

The Customer Service response – I don’t know, so I will come back to you by….

The In This Together response – I don’t know, what do you think? OR Let’s find out.  This reframes the Q&A from a transaction to a relationship. 

The Wonder response – I don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone knows.  I wonder if…

In all of these, I don’t know recognises the questioner, is honest about the level of uncertainty, creates space for curiosity, and makes a commitment to the questioner about the next step. 

Here’s a specific example many of you will have faced.  This one opens up the conversation and potential for change like a ninja. 

Example: A senior leader asks you, ‘What’s this month’s lost-time statistics looking like?’

Factual response: The frequency rate is down to 3.3 from 4.2 last month, and we are tracking almost two points lower than the industry average rate. 

This is what I call TBU: True but useless. 

Here one possible ‘I don’t know’ response: I don’t know exactly, given this month most of our projects were on simpler, lower risk sites, compared to the past few months having finished off a few of the bigger more complex jobs, the fact that the number is down might not tell us much more than we already knew about that risk profile.  What do you make of that?

It’s true that as ethical competent professionals attempting to serve up insights to enable our leaders monitor relevant things and make informed decisions, most of what we can say about statistics and reporting like this, is I don’t know, because they are so flawed, limited, and misused. But this is just one example.

I don’t know, as a response, gives you and your people the space to pause, to consider other possibilities, to learn, and to get better because of all of this. 

Now to your objections to what I am suggesting.  I’ve already talked about the expert issue, and hopefully satisfied you that not only do experts say I don’t know more often, that what follows provides a better outcome. 

So what’s left…is it possible to overuse I don’t know? Yes you can.  If you switch gears tomorrow and go all-out on what I am suggestion you can and should, you might cause some problems.  So like all change, you need to be cognisant of two things.  First, meet people where they are at, don’t impose your I don’t know into them, but introduce it slowly.  And Second, treat the whole thing as an experiment – be intentional about slowly transitioning from the answer vending machine, to the helpful I don’t know powerhouse, and see what happens.  Read the feedback, adjust your approach. 

Now, the case of consultants is a very interesting one when it comes to what I am proposing to you.  You may be listening to this with even more logical objections to what I’ve just said in relation to how you market yourself, what services you offer and what customers expect to buy. 

I am putting together an extra special follow-up to this episode which will be a dedicated reflection on the application of ‘I don’t know’ in the context of consultants.  I would argue that it is equally if not more important to use I don’t know more often, but that it will actually improve your business and your clients will be happier.  If you are a consultant OR if you engage the services of consultants, that’s worth watching out for. 

A few other episodes which you might like to listen to, which are very complementary to this one, are Ep139, I don’t want your business card, which taps into the distance between what we think should happen and what a good outcome actually looks like in a simple exchange, Ep132, called Action Hero (with a question mark), uses the action hero metaphor to help you reflect on how you go about your work (spoiler alert – the hero swooping in to save the day is analogous to the advisor swooping in with an overly confident answer to a question which might have been better answered with I don’t know)Ep95 with Drew Rae explores the evidence-based practice, and the role that we all play in being creators of evidence.  When we begin with I don’t know, we are ready to experiment, to discover our own evidence.  And Ep105, Nineteen non-health, and safety things to improve health and safety practice.  I want you to listen very carefully to the nineteen things, one of which centres on the word YET.  It has to do with a growth mindset and ties in beautifully with the mindset required to confidently pull off I don’t know responses.   

I encourage you to share this episode with a colleague or friend.  It’s really easy to share – grab the URL, and drop them a DM or email.  Such a small effort will give a big impact on a few ways.  First, generously saying to someone, I thought you would get value from this, is such a kind thing to do, for them.  They will appreciate it very much.  It also gives you something to talk about, and we know that social learning is super powerful.  So turn one podcast into an anchor for conversation – compare thoughts, share experiences, that’s a great way to hack your performance.  And finally sharing the episode helps the Safety on Tap mission – spread the word to more people, and we all get better and make a greater impact.  All boats rise together in a rising tide, so invite those boats off the dock or in from faraway places, and into the water, we’re all in together. Please share this episode generously. 

Thanks so much for listening.  Until next time, what’s the one thing you’ll do to take positive, effective, or rewarding action, to grow yourself, and drastically improve health and safety along the way? Seeya!

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