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The four magic words that will change your life. Repeat them slowly: “I don´t know”. Fifteen reasons to embrace them!

This week, I had the opportunity and the pleasure to participate in another Enterprise Tuesday at the Entrepreneurship Centre, Cambridge Judge Business School. The event, titled “Scanning horizons: A futurist mindset for innovative action”, was effortlessly chaired by professor @Stelios Kavadias. Triumphantly, @Dr Rebecca Myers invited two wonderful keynote speakers: @Rodrigo Santos and @Howard Saunders, who brought lots of fun, spontaneity, and of course, smart insights.

I do not intend to go over all the key issues that emerged. I only intend to focus on one aspect that was happily repeated in that dance of voices that made up that ingenious trio. All of them, especially Rodrigo, used the expression “I don’t know” whenever they need it during the Q&A time. (Note for the most sceptical: I want to emphasize that the public reacted very well to these sincerity demonstrations, which never became a sincericide).

The main reason why I want to focus on this aspect is that in my professional and academic practice, as systemic consultant, coach, trainer, and university professor, these four words seem to be a taboo. To be more explicit, when I mean taboo I mean taboo for almost everyone: colleagues, students, clients, coachees, trainees, and mentees, etc. For me it seems a paradox. Can we learn if we already know everything? Can we facilitate knowledge if we think we know everything? It sounds like a heavy burden to me. On the contrary, is not ignorance a strength?

I must confess that for a few years now, saying these four magic words “I don’t know” has generated a lot of pleasure and well-being in me. I feel like a weight is lifted off my shoulders every time I say them. Automatically, I feel released and predisposed to change, to action in the three domains of thinking, feeling and/or acting. However, it was not always like this. I grew as a “smarty” (a know-all) since I thought it was the only way people could love me. It was hard. It was something I was doing unconsciously. Thankfully, life gave me the change to be aware of it (not necessarily in the most pleasant way!) and to work on it, until I was able to put it inside out, from an insurmountable hindrance to an opportunity for growth and improvement. In addition, and as a bonus, this has allowed me to build trust and credibility over time.

I am aware that what I am saying may seem pretty, unfounded. However, it is not the case. The idea that obstacles can be turned into strengths is even included in the book “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday (nice book by the way). Speaking from the authority of my own experience, I empathize perfectly with people who have a hard time saying “I don’t know”. I understand that there are many reasons to feel that way. For example: The desire to appear confident, fear of appearing weak or ignorant, concerns about losing credibility, or pressure to have always the answer. Can some of you professors and consultants relate to that? I bet so!

Nowadays, I use “I don’t know” in my systemic work almost every day. Not because I want to appear humble, but for the following reasons.
1.- In a coaching session, it helps me to embrace the basic attitudes of mindfulness (popularized by the acclaimed John Kabat-Zinn): (1) it buys me patience, (2) it fosters my beginner´s mind and (3) acceptance, (4) trusting what is yet to come, and (5) helping me not striving.

2.- In a consulting setting, it helps me to tap and remain more time within the not-knowing space, open to whatever emerges, being able to hold such space for my clients. At first, it felt a bit uncomfortable, but over time, I enjoyed it more and more. It not only (1) clears my mind but also (2) positions me in a humble attitude from which I can be (3) a catalyser and have (4) an open perspective, which help my clients (5) to find creative solutions. It literally pays off.

3.- In a training setting, it helps me to be a role model, a useful example for the participants. That infects them with (1) a greater freedom to be curious, (2) to participate, and (3) to allow themselves to make mistakes. It fosters (4) a climate of psychological security and allows them to (5) avoid aggrandizing unattainable authority figures such as a trainer, shortening the distance between what they know and what they want to know.

Therefore, based in the fifteen above-mentioned reasons, I am convinced that these four magic words “I don’t know” has changed my life, not only within the work domain, but also in the other life domains.

Finally, I share some questions to encourage reflection; I hope you find them useful: how is your relationship with these four words? What has been your life journey with them? Have you gone through different states like me? Happy to read you and learn from and with you!


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