Answer better than Boris when you lack confidence

Should you ever hide the fact that you don’t know what you’re talking about? That’s what I found myself wondering after a recent blunder by Boris Johnson.

You probably missed it if you’re not following the news from India, where there have been protests by many thousands of farmers against new laws that they say will threaten their livelihood. In the UK, given the current twin crises of Brexit and Covid, people could be forgiven for not keeping up with foreign news. Could the Prime Minister, too, be forgiven for not following every overseas news event right now? Perhaps so, but he ended up looking foolish in parliament by not admitting it.

Labour MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi asked Boris Johnson in the House of Commons whether he would condemn the tactics used to disperse protesters and to affirm the right of peaceful protest. Johnson then said it was a matter for India and Pakistan. Tensions between India and Pakistan have nothing to do with the matter, however, and it appears that Johnson simply had no idea what Dhesi was even referring to.

Working with bluffers and blaggers

So, what should he have done, assuming that he was indeed in the dark about the events he was being asked to comment on?  It’s a stark choice: pretending that you know what the question is about or admitting that you don’t.

It’s not just Johnson, though. One of my colleagues reminisced last week about a time when a group of high-earning professionals he was training discussed the issue of what to do if you’re asked a question and don’t know the answer. Many of them replied along the lines that you had to bluff. Better to be unclear and evasive, they ruled, than to look ignorant. Although not everyone agreed, it was obviously part of the culture that when you’re caught out of your comfort zone the best policy is a rapid burst of good old bovine excrement.

Were they right? Well, it would depend on what was expected of them. If the prevalent behaviour in the organisation, industry or market is that you don’t admit what you don’t know, it might be difficult to go against that. But perhaps it’s not impossible if you go about it the right way.

Building a better mindset

One of the obstacles to going about it the right way is people’s own self-image, and what it’s built on. Typically, a high-flying professional is used to getting things right. She or he would have done well at school, scored highly in exams, got into a prestigious university, excelled there and then attained a prestigious first job. Success after success.  No major setbacks. Not even any major decisions – as there is a perceived ranking of universities and a perceived ranking of companies in each profession. They just look up the ladder and climb.

The education system is a carefully laid trail where students learn what high performance looks like and produce it as closely as they can. That continues into at least the first few years of employment at a big firm.  No-one trains them to deliberate, doubt and pick themselves up after a mistake. Neither do they learn how to present themselves to others as someone of high ability without pretending to have the answer to everything. It’s unthinkable to them that they would ‘fail’ to know. Not knowing facts, for them, is the same as stupidity.

But it isn’t. What they need is a better mindset and a few matching skills.

The mindset they need is to feel confident and valuable because of their ability to acquire knowledge and use it well, not just spout facts. If they have that confidence then to admit ignorance of something is not shameful. Their job is not just to know things; it’s to do things. And it’s the second of those that really counts.

Of course, it’s better if you do know the answer to any question. It looks good, it feels good and if you’re being relied on to supply specialist knowledge, it really is your job. But even then, people would much rather you go and get them any facts and figures you don’t have to hand than fob them off with waffle.

Admitting ignorance with confidence

What are the skills? First among them is the confidence to say ‘I don’t know’. In my sessions, I sometimes get everyone to practise. I ask each person a question they couldn’t possibly know the answer to, like ‘What’s the gross national product of Honduras?’ or ‘What day of the week was my birthday last year?’. Their job is to reply ‘I don’t know’ in a confident and relaxed tone.

Sometimes they struggle and make these mistakes:

  • Shrugging
  • Apologising or sounding apologetic
  • Sounding offhand or disengaged – who cares?
  • Sounding resentful – why are you asking me?

In this case, we do it again with questions they do know the answer to. They observe each other’s tone and body language. Then their task is to retain the same manner when they go back to saying ‘I don’t know’.

In a meeting, you can add something to those few words. For example:

  • I don’t know the figures for that. What I can tell you is….
  • I can give you a rough idea and then I could check the exact facts.
  • That’s something I could find out for you.

Or even:

  • I don’t know the answer to that question. I should have looked that up and I will.

Remember though: it’s not the words you chose that count most. It’s the note in your voice and the look in your eye. Confidence and trust are key. They are worth more than weasel words and waffle. One crucial thing to remember if you’re building your reputation is that if you are open when you don’t know, people can trust you when you say you do know. Whereas if people spot that you are trying to hide gaps in your knowledge, why should they trust anything you say?

After all that, what should Johnson have done? He could have said something along the lines of: ‘What I can say is that Britain should support the right to peaceful protest everywhere in the world.’  That’s the right answer, whatever the facts of the case. He could also have directed the questioner to the Foreign Office for more detail, offered to answer in detail in writing and so on.

Those are conventional techniques to avoid conceding that you don’t know. However, I wondered what the result would have been if he’d said:

‘To be honest, personally I’m stretched to the absolute limit with the demands of the Brexit negotiations and the battle against Covid. I’m sorry that my attention is limited to these two things but I hope you’ll agree that’s where my full focus should be all day every day. For that reason I’m not well enough briefed on the situation to comment further.’

Would observers have thought more of him or less? I don’t know.

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