I Don’t Know

Answering before listening is both stupid and rude. Proverbs 18:13 (The Message)

If you are anything like me, we like to be right.  We want to appear to have all the answers, even though deep in our minds, we know we don’t, but we often don’t want to admit it. I’m as guilty as the next person on this. We can get tunnel vision without realizing that we may marginalize people.  In attempts to get our point across, we don’t listen to others.

Tony Dungy, in his devotional book Uncommon Life, uses a humorous example of people who pretend to know more than they do.  He cites the example of Nathan who was told in law school: “If, after three weeks in class, you don’t know who the class jerk is, it’s you.”  Ouch!

Charles Stanley said: “God gave us two ears and one mouth and maybe he was trying to tell us something.”  That is the gist of the Proverbs 18:13 passage.  Even now, when I am in the company of my wife in a social context, she will privately comment on how well I listened.  Sometimes, I don’t get a good grade, even after 50 years of marriage.  She is my biggest fan and my biggest critic.

My wife recently read one of my posts and said it was too long. She may be right, so I am trying to shorten them. I face the decision of trying to do justice to a topic, and I find that my short essays end up being short novels.

The reality is that I don’t know everything.  Wish I did, but that’s not the way it works. Neither do you, for that matter. When you step out with an “I am right and I know better” attitude, your lack of real knowledge may become painfully apparent to others.

Over the years, I became more comfortable in admitting I didn’t know an answer.  As a lawyer with a specialty, I was often asked questions within my area of expertise.  As I grew more secure about myself, if I was asked a question that I didn’t have an answer to, my response was that I wasn’t sure but that it would be an easy question to research and find the right answer.

I would then tell the client I would follow-up when I had the answer. Not only did I feel less stupid, but I knew that sometimes an “obvious” answer may not be accurate without some thoughtful consideration. It would have been unprofessional to provide an “off the cuff” answer that might have been wrong or misleading.

John Maxwell, a well-known life coach, says this: “A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them.”

The “know it all” attitude may be a result of ego, but it can also be attributed to insecurity and the fear of being exposed as not knowing what you should.  What’s interesting to me is my recent discussion of the different levels of leadership in an older post.

Maxwell is known for his development of the five levels of leadership.  The fifth level is attained by only a small number of successful leaders. One of the attributes of this level is humility.  No, that’s not a misprint.

The leaders on the fifth level are secure enough in their strengths and realize their weaknesses, and are quick to admit they don’t have the answer to a specific issue or challenge.  They often develop strong boards with other successful individuals, yet they are comfortable admitting they don’t have an answer and need help.  That’s a great model for all of us.

In the mentoring arena, one of the greatest things that a mentor can do is be a sounding board for a mentee.  Just having gray hair doesn’t insure that one knows everything; it does indicate that there are enough life experiences under the belt that the mentor and mentee can help each other work toward the best solution when a challenge arises.

In a perfect world, there are clear solutions and answers to problems. Unfortunately, I don’t live in a perfect world, and often issues are complicated and choices for decisions are not always “all” right or “all” wrong.

I used to describe myself as living in the “gray”, because my advice as a professional involved coming up with the best decision where there was no black or white.  My decisions as to the best course came after considering how each option might play out after considering the pros and the cons of each.

One of the biggest challenges in public discourse today has been the inappropriate use of labels in arguments.  When you label someone “stupid”, “bigoted”, “racist”, it cuts off discussion because the labels become an insult.

Think of it this way: If you started out every conversation by saying “I think you are stupid”, do you actually think your conversation (or your relationship, for that matter) will go anywhere?  This is now all too common in America, and it has polarized our culture.

The challenges of this topic cover a lot of waterfront.  The first challenge is what your attitude is when you want to appear “right”?  Are you willing to listen to others whose views may not be on all fours with yours?  Are you dismissive of a challenge?  Or, are you willing to listen to others and validate their position or their beliefs?  Can you collaborate with someone whose views differ?  These are hard questions.

In the mentoring context, are you willing to model to your mentee that you don’t have all the answers?  Are you willing to say “I don’t know”, but I can think and pray about your situation and maybe then I may offer some suggestions that may help?  That’s real mentoring.  Knowing when to listen and when to offer advice.  Sort of “Listen before you leap.”

Bill Mann

MENTOR TAKEAWAY:  Work on your listening when you are with a mentee (or anybody else, for that matter).  It may be more important than what you say. Also, don’t fear saying “I don’t know” but add that you can help find the best answer.

FURTHER STUDY: Read more Maxwell Quotes at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/j/john_c_maxwell.html

A description of the Five Levels of leadership by Maxwell: http://www.johnmaxwell.com/blog/5-levels-of-leadership

WORSHIP:  Listen to Matt Redman sing “May My Words Be Few.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CqIA_l2ypkE

COMMENT:  I would be delighted at comments on this or any other post. You can comment by clicking on the icon at the top of the page, or emailing me at otterpater@nc.rr.com.

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