You May Not Know the Answer by Alexandra White

Topic: Communication

As the conference call wears on into the second hour, we are all becoming glum. It seems we are getting further away from resolving the problems with our internal software, not closer.

The more questions we ask Mark, our technical expert, the quieter he becomes.

“When will it be fixed?” we ask. “Why does it keep crashing?”

One of our team members begins to grumble audibly, muttering, “Why didn’t you guys test this better?  You knew we might have over 20,000 users trying to access it at the same time! You had to have known!”

Mark remains silent. We can almost hear him sighing, and although none of us can see each other over the phone, we can nearly feel the vibration from his eyeballs rolling in their sockets.

Finally my colleague Troy asks a question, in his gentle Texas twang I used to find annoying, but now enjoy. On our nearly daily calls, Troy’s voice washes over me like a balm, soothing down my normally frenetic nature, my rapid-fire speech. Working with Troy is like a kind of mental yoga for me.

Troy asks Mark a question about whether we can fix one particular problem, first, before we tackle the others.

Again, a long pause hangs in the air as Mark thnks this over. He isn’t sure, most likely, but he is also probably concerned about admitting those dreaded three words: I. Don’t. Know.

Troy fills the silence easily. “I know this could take some investigation, Mark. You may not know the answer right now.”

I feel a rush of gratitude for these simple words and the pressure that lifts off our shoulders.

You may not know the answer.

Just knowing that you don’t have to know something immediately, that you can have time to gather your thoughts, releases that tension and stress.

As a naturally impatient person who races through her life as if playing an ongoing game of “Beat the Clock,” I need these reminders from people like Troy.

It’s okay to pause before you answer a question.

It’s okay to take the time to make a little small talk with your colleague before you plunge into your work together, to ask about their weekend, their children.

It’s okay not to know everything right this very minute.

It’s okay to admit you don’t know everything right this very minute.

It’s okay to say, “I don’t know the answer right now, but I’ll certainly find out for you.”

You may not know the answer—today, next week, or ever. Some answers will never rise up to meet you, but you certainly won’t find those answers faster with someone bearing down on you, riding you, cracking a whip along your flanks.

Troy’s approach works. Our once-silent Mark begins to talk. “You’re right, I don’t have the fix right now. But let me look into that first bug you mentioned, and I’ll get back to you today with an answer.”

Today I’m going to try Troy’s approach—on myself, my colleagues, and with my family. What if I release the pressure, just through those few reassuring words?  

You may not know the answer.

6 Responses to “You May Not Know the Answer by Alexandra White”
  1. Jen Hurowitz says:

    I love this! “You may not know the answer—today, next week, or ever. Some answers will never rise up to meet you, but you certainly won’t find those answers faster with someone bearing down on you, riding you, cracking a whip along your flanks.” Very wise indeed, my friend. Now if we can just send this as a memo to ALL of our bosses, the rest of the week should go swimmingly. 🙂

  2. Anne Katherine says:

    I’m becoming glum just thinking about a conference call lasting more than 1 hour 😉

    This is so true…and thank goodness for the Troys of the world who help bridge the gaps that occur in our attempts at communication… before conflict and stubbornness and all the rest set in.

    And this definitely applies to all aspects of life. Because nobody has all the answers…even, and sometimes most especially, when you think you do!

    • talleygilly says:

      Yes, those long calls can be quite exhausting!! I am grateful for people like “Troy” (not his real name) who keep us grounded in communication that resolves problems, rather than conversations that just fan the flames of frustration. Thanks for reading!!

  3. There’s this fantastic book called Flipnosis. I’ve put a link to a newspaper article on it. It’s pretty much the way your Texan friend approaches the situation you describe. It’s a way of putting people at their ease and making them comfortable so that things can get done with everyone feeling happy.–FLIPNOSIS-BY-KEVIN-DUTTON.html Wonderful post and a well described exemplary cameo. I haven’t been in one of those situations in years and I don’t miss them. I don’t envy anyone doing conferences, video or otherwise, let alone being one of those who organize and run them. Every person under pressure needs a ‘Troy’ to rescue them and move things on nicely.

    • talleygilly says:

      Richard – Thanks for your kind words and for the recommendation, that book sounds fascinating–I will definitely check it out. Yes, our conference calls are necessary evils (thank goodness we don’t have video for the eye-rolling!), but when we encounter people who have learned good communication skills (and teach us, by their example), they can be nearly pleasant. -Alexandra

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