The amazing things that happen when we say “I don’t know.”

close-up photography of brown wooden card catalog
It might be easiest to start by asking, what do we actually know? Let that sink in for a bit and I’ll circle back around to it. The pressure to know is something that sits heavily on all of us. Being a teacher and a practitioner sure highlights this pressure, but I imagine that your job probably has its moments, too. Our lives absolutely demand that we know.

And by ‘know’ I mean look smart, appear suave, have the answers (not the questions), be the expert, maintain professionalism, maintain efficiency, don’t get caught off guard, always be right, and generally stay in control.

My heart rate goes up just reading that list of demands. But that is the list of demands that we have culturally agreed we want to experience—especially from healthcare providers—in order to feel ok. This need for ‘expertness’ and the feeling ok that it creates is present in every part of our lives. Every. Single. Part. I’m sticking with big, health-care-related examples in this blog. The tiny permeations of this are equal parts interesting and horrifying, but they’re beyond what we’re examining here. If you want to check it out on your own, though, just see what feelings come up the next time you say hello to your friend at the grocery store. After you’ve said hello, however, you realize the person you’ve greeted is actually NOT the person you thought it was. Or, if you’re unsure which direction to walk in a new city and mid-way down the street you realize you need to turn around and walk in the opposite direction. WEIRD, right? Uncomfortable, awkward, and maybe even embarrassing. But WHY? Why do these small moments of not knowing feel so bad?  Kathryn Schulz, a self-proclaimed ‘Wrongologist,’ tells us that we learn, really early on, that “the way to succeed in life is to never make any mistakes.” She’s also a big proponent of saying, “I don’t know.”
So, how does this apply to healthcare? And, why is openly saying ‘I don’t know’ so powerful?

First, it’s vulnerable, and it’s honest. And that vulnerability puts us on a level playing field with our clients.

Saying ‘I don’t know’ is just the simple truth in some of the situations we encounter as healthcare professionals. It’s important to say that we don’t always don’t know—sometimes we have the answer and those moments are empowering and wonderful! But, the underlying message (that I learned from one of my favorite colleagues): Make sure you know what you know and also what you don’t know. I’m adding—don’t be afraid to say it. It won’t come as the shocker you imagine in the eyes of your client. Guess what? They already knew that you didn’t know everything. How? They’re human, too.

Second, admitting when we’re not sure opens the door for cooperation and referral.

When better to refer out then when we don’t know how to proceed with a patient or client? Turn it over to someone with the expertise to really help. And, in the meantime, form a professional network of trusted practitioners who you can rely on and learn from. Guaranteed your referral network will be just as interested in your area of expertise, and the referrals will be returned. That is the definition of win-win-win.

Finally, it’s important to say we don’t know because then we get to be curious, to learn, and eventually to act with accuracy.

This accuracy = EXCELLENT PATIENT OUTCOMES. Let me say it again for the people in the back: your pretending to understand, to look good, to be right does not serve your client. It does not serve them, it does not serve you, and it does not serve the world of scientific knowledge at large. In fact, it is a disservice to these important areas of patient/practitioner relationship and intellectual advancement. In his blog for Medium (and I highly recommend clicking over to read this excellent article), Will Koehrsen speaks to the power of intellectual humility and cites the scientific method as one of the greatest examples.

“Science is founded on admitting when we don’t know something and then gathering evidence to figure out the cause of a phenomenon or the effect of a treatment.” — Will Koehrsen for Medium

The state of curiosity created from collective S.I.H. (Scientific Intellectual Humility) will help us to best understand the incredible intricacies of our bodies and our universe. In saying ‘I don’t know,’ amazing things will happen.

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