Saying 'I don't know' can open the mind for learning

The Greek philosopher Socrates said that as soon as someone claims to know something, it's a sure sign that he or she does NOT know. Einstein said 'Learning does not occur when you say 'I know'; learning only occurs when you say 'I don't know.' Yet, as professionals, we're often locked into having to say 'I know' or risk losing face.

When you say 'I don't know' it creates an environment where new and innovative solutions can be jointly discovered. It also gives you a kind of beginner's mindset, where you are completely open to new learning. When you say 'I already know' you're preventing the possibility of learning anything new.

Share this concept with your learners at the beginning of a program. Discuss with them how they can incorporate this open-minded attitude of not necessarily believing they know everything. If they are managers tell them that this attitude allows their 'subordinates' to present their points of view and sharpen their own thinking and creative problem solving skills.

Encourage learners to take this approach in the program and collaborate to find new solutions. And, as the trainer, make sure that when asked a question, sometimes say 'I don't know' and let the group collaboratively discover the answer. This way, you're maximizing the intelligence in the room, and some of the burden of having to be the 'expert' is lifted from your shoulders.

Do you facilitate your sessions looking out for what you can learn as well as give?

(Suggested by Jack Wolf, President of Lifelong Learning Partners, specializing in teaching adults how to learn. Jack has helped thousands discover their own learning potential through his many innovative programs. For more information, call [ (941) 758-1800. Email:

(September/Octobers 1998 issue)