The value of knowing what you don't know

March 11, 2008

I’m increasingly beginning to believe that successful consultation processes create, at their core, the possibility for all participants to say “I don’t understand that” or “I don’t know”. And I also believe that the approach I take as a consultant to meeting with consultees sets the tone for how the conversation around knowledge and not knowing is generated. “Not knowing” is one of those hackneyed phrases that lives in the same box as “excellence” (I’m sure you can add to the list)…essentially they are meaningless and meaningful in equal measure.
I’ve had several great conversations this week with people who profess to “not knowing” anything about the arts. Some have even gone so far as to label themselves “philistines”. Never one to accept something at face value, I inquired further and of course all of these people knew much more than they thought they did about the arts….some haven’t had the official “jargon” with which to talk about the topic – others didn’t know that what they knew counted for expertise about the subject.
I’ve deliberately held “meetings” in informal places. I’ve resisted wearing a suit and the informality of the setting has gone some way to an increasing comfort level and much creativity in the conversation. I guess in each of these cases I have started from the perspective that we all know more than we do and the conversation must be structured around the meaning of “not knowing”. In the past few weeks I’ve learned the following from people who have claimed not to know what they were talking about.

We all know much more than we think we do
When someone tells me they “don’t know” I hear “I don’t know how”
All we need is an invitation to reflect on what it is we think we don’t know anything about
Informal conversations are as important as formal ones – in a jargon defended arena informality can create a safe place in which to be creative
If someone tells me “I don’t know” I inquire into what it is they do know