Much has been written about women’s tendencies to overuse the phrase “I’m sorry.” I’ve never been big on apologizing, but I have noticed how much I use “I’m not sure” and “I don’t know.” To be sure, there are plenty of things in this crazy world to be “not sure” about. My scientific training only magnifies this tendency to see life in its many layers, possibilities and viewpoints.
But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the times when I’m actually damn sure –and I’m also damn sure that it would not go well if I said so straight out.
“I’m not sure I can fully support that,” I say – but what I mean is “Oh, HELL no!”
In leadership environments, some of this padding is absolutely useful – for instance, if you don’t have the power to veto the stupid proposal on your own and need to convince others. Even if you’re the boss, sometimes it’s wise to leave some room to negotiate or to be convinced.
But not everyone is able to read between the lines. Some people simply stop listening at “I’m not sure.”
In their world, when you say “I’m not sure” it means – surprise – that you’re not sure.
(This ascendency of an ultra-literal translation always reminds me of the scene in Dumb and Dumber: “What are the chances of you and me ending up together?” “One in a million.” “So you’re telling me there is a chance! YEAH!”)
This is where most people giving advice stop – they tell you to wipe the words “I’m not sure” from your vocabulary.
I'll say it straight out: I think that’s kind of dumb.
What the literalists fail to realize is that when you use phrases like “I don’t know” and “I’m not sure,” you are deciding to be gentle. You are demonstrating care for the other person. Leaving open the possibility for other viewpoints and new facts. And at least you aren’t being like that arrogant, self-involved doofus who utters every word with complete conviction, yet ultimately runs the project off a cliff.
And yet, there is a level on which the literal translation matters. Because you are sure. You do know. You have an actual argument, but you are not telling anyone, because you don’t think they can handle it.
I’m not concerned about whether or not they can handle it. What I am concerned about is, what does that habit do to you? How does the “I’m not sure” habit influence the way you perceive and use your own power?
For me, it reinforces my fear that people cannot or will not see it my way. That they won’t see the logic in my arguments. That I have no power of persuasion.
It also trains me that my knowledge is really just my opinion and that the jury is still out.
In some ways it’s a fear response, a way of hedging your bets in case this stupid idea gains traction and takes off against your will.
And also, it protects your ego and position: if you don’t lay out your arguments, no one can refute you. But you never get the chance to learn from your mistakes.
What would happen if we learned better ways to unpack our viewpoints, rather than just reacting?
What would happen if we risked arguing our points logically instead of merely inviting others to convince us?
What would happen if everyone got used to the idea that “I’m not sure” and “I don’t know” are merely gentle ways to confront each other?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’d like to find out.