by Megan Power (@Power_Report) “I don’t know.” Pretty innocuous words. Yet three words which, if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us would prefer not to say — or hear too often. It’s human nature to want to sound knowledgeable; to be in control and, if we can’t, we need the assurance that someone else is.
That’s not an easy ask now, during covid-19. For every piece of so-called evidence or advice (be it medical, economic, social or environmental), there’s the inevitable caveat somewhere in the mix, warning that “we’re not sure as yet…”, “this is pure speculation for now…” or “it’s too early to tell…”. Ultimately, what each of these experts, global leaders, forecasters and writers is saying loud and clear is: “I don’t know.”
That’s ok. It’s the truth, after all. Despite decades of war and conflict, catastrophic natural disasters and economic collapse, most of us alive today haven’t experienced anything like the kind of multifaceted crisis we now face. So, nobody really knows anything for sure. Maybe the time has come for more of us, in our personal and professional lives, to admit that — and to understand that “I don’t know” doesn’t mean “I don’t care”, “I can’t” or “I won’t”.
With a career in news journalism starting at 20 and spanning three decades, coupled with a handy ability to absorb dense information fairly quickly, my oldest friends have long expected me to know everything or, at least, have a better informed ‘take’ on current affairs, regardless of whether or not it was something I’d worked on. Often, I didn’t have much of any huge value to offer. But I was reluctant in those early days to admit that my small place in a major newsroom didn’t automatically bestow on me superior knowledge or insight. It took a little growing up before I felt comfortable telling them I didn’t, and couldn’t, know everything and that their guesses were often as good, if not better, than mine.
Now with covid-19, these same friends still expect from me the distilling of the news deluge into easier digestible, relevant bites. Years of editing and packaging news makes that the easy part. Predicting outcomes, not so much. Obviously, I don’t know what’s around the corner and nor do they. Knowing that makes the discussion around the possibilities and probabilities so much richer and unrestrained.
The “I don’t know” is a great leveller in most relationships. In a mature, inclusive workplace in times of crisis, it has even further advantages. The honesty of starting off from this position is that it encourages creativity, allows baggage to be dropped and, more significantly, boundaries to be pushed. In this more-candid environment, there are no right or wrong questions, answers or ideas. The path is clear for that most underrated of treasures,too — listening.
Whether that “listening” is via traditional or digital means, it requires of us an outside-in approach. It requires that organisations and teams create a safer, more-accommodating space where there’s more listening than talking. We’d also be wise to hear, really hear, what stakeholders — from staff to customers, suppliers to investors — are saying.
Pretending that anyone, much less those of us in strategic communications, reputation and crisis management, have all the answers is pointless. This pandemic is global, brutal and unparalleled; it’s a moving target like no other, prompting responses like no other.
The other benefit of admitting we don’t know everything is that there’s likely to be less fallout when we get it wrong, which many of us inevitably will. It can’t be an excuse for mistakes, carelessness or paralysis but, if we’re coming from a place of more honesty and less fear, it could embolden us to take very necessary leaps of faith into the unknown.
No doubt, further hardship and heartache lie ahead (for some more than others). But, although hard to imagine right now, good too must come from this crisis. How, where, what and when remains unclear. But I suspect, at least I hope, that the very best and brightest of any new way of working, being and responding will start with a genuine “I don’t know”.
First published on www.marklives.com