I Don't Know What I Don't Know

communication courageous Sep 05, 2022

by Aubrey Patterson


Have you ever worked for someone who is comfortable admitting not having all the answers and who asks questions like, 'Did I explain this clearly enough?' or 'Did I use any phrases or jargon that might mean something different to two different people?"

We Don't Know What We Don't Know

We often don’t know as much as we think we do. 

Need convincing?

Look around at something you use every day. Perhaps you see a door knob or your car radio. Now, try to explain the basics of how that item works. When we attempt this seemingly simple task, it's likely we'll find gaps in what we actually know. In psychology, this overconfident space is referred to as the illusion of explanatory depth, or the belief that we know more than we actually know. 

We see this illusion frequently in everyday buzz words like time blocking and learning teams. Though we hear them uttered frequently, such terms often lead team members to interpret directions with context clues rather than simple instructions.

As long as a person doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, he isn’t going to grow. (John Maxwell)

Understanding our explanatory gaps is essential for growth. An undiagnosed gap in knowledge means we may never truly recognize a problem. We may find ourselves celebrating actions like multitasking, rather than recognizing the hindering effects.

Think Like a Teacher

As is often the case, we should operate as teachers. To teach something to others, we have to teach ourselves first, thus filling the gaps in our own knowledge. 

True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing. (Socrates)

We don't need students to do this. 

We can build a habit of self-teaching whenever we encounter something we want to dive into more deeply, simply by saying to ourselves, 'How could I teach this in 3 to 5 steps? What would be the questions I'd ask if I were a student?' 

Humility Wins

Humility is both appealing and contagious in learning cultures. 

When we operate on the assumption that 'I don't know what I don’t know', we encourage others to openly ask more questions, challenge existing assumptions, and bring an equally open mind to their conversations. 

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