The Many Meanings of “I Don’t Know.”

Article by: Bridgehaven Team

Television programs at times have interruptions due to important events, noting, “We now interrupt your regularly scheduled program to bring this important announcement.” This blog will be an interruption of the “regularly scheduled” one on Dangerous Calling to address multiple meanings behind a phrase used on a daily basis: I don’t know. At first glance, you may be wondering, “What do you mean there are different meanings behind the phrase? Isn’t it self-explanatory? When a person says, “I don’t know, doesn’t he or she really mean there is a lack of knowing, and that the person really doesn’t know?” The short answer is yes and no. Language is helpful in expressing ideas, thoughts, and feelings, but often we must probe deeper. There can be varying degrees of meaning behind a word or phrase. I don’t know is no exception.

In the counseling office, it can be tempting to hear a person say, “I don’t know” and move on to another question. After hearing this term repeatedly, I have realized that there are several different meanings and motivations behind the phrase, which requires further questioning. Here are a few of the term’s multiple meanings and motives:

1. Lack of information: This meaning is the “normal” usage of the phrase. A person may simply not know the answer to a question. If someone were to ask me, “What is the most common food eaten in Sydney, Australia?” my answer would be, “I don’t know.” I have never been to Sydney and am not familiar with customs and traditions, so I do not have enough information to answer the question.

2. To stall the conversation: People process information in different ways. While some people may be able to answer a question on the spur of the moment, others may need more time to think through the question, process it, and then give the answer. If working with someone that I suspect might need more time to answer, when hearing the person say, “I don’t know,” I may want to follow up with the question, “Do you need more time to process that question so that we can talk about it later?”

3. Avoidance: Sometimes I don’t know can be used as a way to avoid the question being asked completely. The motivation behind the person’s “I don’t’ know” is that he or she does not want to address the question at all, therefore stating “I don’t know” in attempt to steer the conversation in a different direction. I have found avoidance to be a motivation that is very commonly used. At times it is helpful to ask, “When you say, “I don’t know,” are you saying that you really do know but do not want to talk about this question?”

4. An alert that the person is about to shut down: If a person feels backed into a corner, he or she may use “I don’t know” before the person shuts the conversation off completely. At this point, a shift in conversation may be necessary.

Though not an exhaustive list, these are a few of the multiple meanings of the phrase I don’t know. When speaking with someone, listening is the most important. I do not want to begin to confront a person’s usage of “I don’t know” until I have heard and listened well. If there is a pattern of using the term, I may then begin to further probe and question. Sensitivity is required. If someone answers, “I don’t know really means that I need more time to process the information,” I need to respect that. I do not want to continue to clarify and probe because that person has told me want is needed in that moment: more time. It is then my responsibility to be patient. Other times, however, I may need to probe further. If a person continues to avoid every question, I may need to lovingly confront, stating, “It seems to me that these questions are hard to answer. Is it that you really do not know, or is there something else that is hard about this conversation?”

Whether in the context of ministry, marriage, family, friendships, or counseling, it is important to listen well. In our listening, we may hear repetitive phrases or words. At that point, we may begin to question further to see if there is something further going on in the heart.

Kathy King

Staff Counselor, Bridgehaven Counseling Associates