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On saying “I don’t know”

A couple of weeks ago, the excellent @IanColdwater posted the following:

This is a great post for two reasons. First, because we all need to hear it sometimes. Second – and perhaps more importantly – because admitting you do not know is – or rather should be – a core tenet of any job that deals with the processing of information. This is true to the extent that it is one of the first thing I tell new colleagues in the support department: if presented with a question for which you have no idea of the answer, reply “I don’t know, but I will get back to you”, and then go and learn.

Of course, responding in that way commits you to getting back to the person asking the question. The important thing – or so I think, at any rate – is not what you answer, but that you answer. The answer may be “I need to pass this on to the operations team”, or it may be “we can’t solve this for you, I’m sorry”, but the important thing is to 1) admit that you do not know, 2) commit to finding out, and 3) get back to the requester with new information.

When you do this, everybody wins. The requester wins, your company wins, and you win.

Most importantly, the requester wins; they get more information, a solution, or at the very least a response that lets them seek other solutions. Second most importantly, the supporter wins; they learn something new, and will hopefully bring that learning with them going forward. Thirdly, the company wins through the supporters commitment and delivering on that commitment.

In support, winning is not a zero-sum game.

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