I don’t know

Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know.”’ Wisława Szymborska

If you have had children or spent time with them when they are young you will have enjoyed that incessant ‘why’, ‘what’s this for’ questioning demonstrating a natural tendency to openness, ‘I don’t know so I will ask’ and an inquiring mind. This can be an incessant refrain but must be welcomed. Then as we grow into young people and adults this open questioning can and more often does stop. We may still question things but can learn that to show our ignorance to our peers can lead to ridicule and so we become more circumspect. Good teaching at this young age can maintain our capacity to question, analyse, reflect and critically assess issues before us. For those lucky enough to have a university education it is in the essence of ‘graduateness’ to develop these critical faculties. It can be more difficult in the world of work where apparent certainties can close our minds to the alternatives.

In work we often become receivers of instructions presented as fact. These certainties can be uncomfortable for the inquiring mind who want to subject instructions to examination and enquiry. Many will accept such instructions thus obviating the need to think but maybe also sacrificing their joy in a job which can become routine and repetitive. We should follow good practices but not at the expense of understanding and engagement.

These patterns of behaviour can become entrenched. At one end of the spectrum we have those whose utter belief in their own voice and views will close off debate and questioning, and, at its misaligned best, we would find the ‘narcissist’ whose only reference point is his own perceptions of the world around him. I use the male pronoun as in my experience these are often men and can often be people in power, trying to Trump everyone else for instance!

I came across one such person for two years when working. It was the most difficult time I ever experienced in what was an overwhelmingly great work life. There was a complete inability to see things beyond his own perspective even when confronted with the facts. He would rarely if ever say ‘I don’t know’. If you challenge the `narcissist’ you may be forced into a battle not of your choosing. You begin to lose confidence in yourself as you are presented with ideas which do not hang together but which are delivered with force and sometimes threat. This is the extreme end of the spectrum but particularly present amongst people who hold power and who believe they know best.

Engaging in critical thinking

I was attracted to this topic when attending a conference for trainee probation staff this last week. I have always enjoyed shaping in students this capacity to be reflective, critical and questioning. In my remarks my key message to them was to develop and hold on to this capacity. It can come naturally but it can also be taught as long as the work environment then encourages and fosters it. I think I was lucky to be educated and then trained in an era (1970s) which encouraged reflective practice. For me the true mark of a professional is that ability to think out of the box, to say ‘I don’t know’ the solution here, or reflect and critically assess options and alternatives. I always questioned a student who did not ask questions as behind their certainties often stood an inflexible mind. But the circumstances of work even for professionals in the modernised managed world of work has made it harder to maintain that perspective. But, would you want a surgeon who may be expert in all the latest techniques and procedures but confronted on the operating table with an unknown problem not being able to think out of the box and seek advice from colleagues and/or critically evaluate what she can do?

Too often we become receivers of instructions and/or possessors of certainty in the task. It is perceived as a weakness if we say I don’t know. This stifles good professional practice and risks mistakes based on perceived wisdom. Ironically the rise of more evidence-based policies feeds into this tendency for certainty and is at the heart of standardization of practices. Research, evidence, knowledge must always remain provisional as practice will change and develop, in is in the very DNA of professional practice. In this respect I have always preferred the phrase ‘evidence-informed practice and policy’ as better reflecting the need to know what is known, but to think out of the box in complex unpredictable situations to seek more informed solutions. Even if our work roles demand us to appear in control and knowing the solutions do not let that inner voice saying ‘I don’t know’ stop. 

Although more popular before the millennium, the notion that organisations can provide a learning environment where the capacity for critical thinking and reflective practice is not only allowed but encouraged remains a worthy goal. The various schools of thought talked of ‘learning companies’ or ‘learning organisations’, the need remains pertinent in today’s world. If we reduce levels of training or provide ‘technical’ courses which teach skills and procedures but do not stimulate the questioning we could be heading for future problems. However uncomfortable it is for the manager their task is not just to direct and control what goes on but to facilitate reflection to get at the best possible practice.

For me this is not just about work but is a style of engagement which works in families, in voluntary groups, with young people and with receivers of care. Asking others what they think, expressing openness to think and re-think makes participation and engagement more likely and outcomes more sustainable and shared. The current focus on ensuring the service user voice is heard is at the root of this thinking as the professional maybe an expert but not necessarily have empathetic understanding. So why not ask, open yourself up to debate and challenge and as the quote says exercise the continuous ‘I don’t know’.
My week in photos

Headingly in sunshine
Going to a hundred
The old Pavilion
A Yorkshire crowd loving their cricket
First ball of the season
Broken bird table
A bridge before home
Engaging at the conference: a collage

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