You learn something new every day

Photo of a school bus
Photo by Jared and Corin. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

I can still hear my high school English teacher, Mr. Steiner, saying “You learn something new every day.” He challenged us to stump him with questions about the news, trivia, and vocabulary.  I appreciated that he sought to regularly learn from his students, and that he was both honest and humble when he didn’t know something.

Last month, I attended a talk by Rosalind Wiseman, a parenting educator and author of several publications including Queen Bees and Wannabes. Rosalind spoke about how parents should take responsibility if they see an injustice such as bullying, and what to do if your child is a victim. She emphasized that if you don’t know how to handle an issue that your child brings to you, admit it. But, at the same time, turn it into an advantage. Since your child would most likely rather scrub toilets than talk to a counselor, use the fact that you don’t know how to handle the situation into an offer of “But, I know just the person who can help…”

I started thinking about how I’ve handled situations at work over the years when someone asked me a question I couldn’t answer. Sometimes these were technical questions, sometimes personnel questions. I wouldn’t ever just say “I don’t know” and leave it at that. I would put that person in touch with someone who I thought would know the answer. If it was something I thought I should know as well, I’d offer to send an email or attend a meeting with both people. I guess this is my equivalent of turning it into an advantage: I had the chance to learn from someone else as well as expand my network within my company.

When my kids need help with homework, I am embarrassed to admit how often I’m stumped. History questions are the worst. (Thank goodness for the internet!) But, I often learn something interesting and applicable as a leader…

When my daughter was in 9th grade, she asked me to read over an essay she was working on for English class. She specifically asked for feedback about its style, explaining that it had to follow the format of a persuasive essay. When I admitted to her that I didn’t know what to look for, she patiently walked me through a letter by Dr. Martin Luther King, pointing out the role of each paragraph. Not only was I then able to give her feedback on her piece, I learned something I would apply at work the very next day. An employee in one of my groups had written a statement about how he disagreed with a standards proposal published by another organization. His draft was antagonistic and not very compelling. I suggested that he rewrite his letter, following the format of a persuasive essay. I felt I was giving helpful, constructive feedback, and I remember being so grateful for what my daughter had taught me.

But, let’s face it. Admitting that you don’t know something is hard. After all, shouldn’t leaders and parents be all-knowing? To turn not knowing something into an advantage, I try to follow these best practices:

  1. I don’t pretend to know an answer when I don’t.
  2. I ask a lot of questions. Not only does this help me learn, I am also showing I’m interested and want to help.
  3. I offer at least one step to take to find the answer.
  4. I look to learn something from it.

Did you learn something new today? What have you learned from the children in your life that you’ve brought to the office? I’d love to hear from you!


© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

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