A magical question when I don’t know

How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.

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I don’t know
One of the most common answers to a question is I don’t know. (I’m not saying it’s especially common, just more common than “cheddar”, “42”, and “in the second drawer on the left”.) Generally, I don’t know is a good answer because it’s likely to be an honest one. After all, it’s when someone confidently answers a question about which they really haven’t a clue that all kinds of trouble can follow.

But occasionally someone—let’s call him Paul—answers with I don’t know after a pause, perhaps in a hesitant manner, that makes you wonder if perhaps he does have an interesting answer “at the back of his mind”. Here’s a magical follow-up question that often leads to a more specific, useful response.

Let’s suppose that a specific problem has been identified and described by Paul and you ask him:

“What would the solution look like?”

Paul, after a pause, says hesitantly:

“I don’t know.”

Here’s the magical follow-up question, asked in an even tone:

“If you did know, what do you think the solution would look like?”

Now stay quiet and wait for an answer.

You may get another, puzzled, I don’t know, but more often than not, this reframing of your original question will evoke a specific answer to your question.

Why does this work?
I’m not a psychologist, but I believe that this follow-up question works because we don’t consciously know everything we know. The “if you did know” addition gives Paul temporary permission to ignore his stated lack of knowledge and potentially tap his experience and expertise at an unconscious level.

Note that if Paul appears confident that he doesn’t know, this is not the right question to ask. Also, if you have a hunch that the magical question might work, don’t ask it in a condescending way, i.e. implying that you know Paul knows the answer but he doesn’t.

I’ve used this magical question judiciously with good results. Have you? How did it work out? Share your experience in the comments!

Photo attribution: Flickr user cowbite