Why saying “I don’t know” is better than bluffing a response

Almost every time I teach my Bible study group, someone asks a question for which I struggle to come 20140528-hands-raised1up with an instant answer. Some questions simply require more time to think them through. Some questions require a little research before a response is given. About the worst thing a group leader could say when they really don’t know the answer is anything that tries to protect their image as “the expert.” The most powerful thing a group leader could say is simply, “I don’t know.”

Years ago I heard Dr. Howard Hendricks addressed this issue. He was presenting a session in the series The Seven Laws of the Teacher. In talking about this very thing, I remember him reporting on a real scenario in which a student asked his Sunday School teacher (Walt) a tough question. Walt thought about making up an answer, but responded to the teenager, “I don’t know that I can answer that.” But after a short pause he added, “But I’ll find an answer.” That’s the right response!

In the book Teacher: Creating Conversational Community, the authors also address this real-life scenario with the admonition, “It’s OK to admit that you’re still being taught a few things by the Lord. Your honesty will be rewarded with the respect of your group members” (p.42). That’s good advice. It may be counter-intuitive to admit you don’t know an answer, but respect from group members climbs quickly when a teacher is honest about their own lack of understanding. It makes the teacher seem a little more “human,” and it proves they are learners on the same journey as their group members.

The next time a group member asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, just say, “What a great question! I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll find one and we’ll talk next time.”

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