What to do when you don’t know what to do

Posted by on Jun 28, 2016 in Personal Development | 0 comments

It just happened again to me last week.

I caught myself throwing up my hands about a sticky situation regarding a family trip, and just concluding that there was no good answer. “Well, I guess we’ll just have to all be miserable for those 5 days. I don’t know what else to do!”

But those words haunted me.

“I don’t know…”

Ten years ago, a drama teacher of mine forbid the phrase “I don’t know” from her classroom. She said “‘I don’t know’ is where your brain goes to sit on the bench.” And at first, this was maddening. We might be asked, “Why did you choose to sit in the front row today?” or “Why do you think this character wants his brother’s attention?” And without that phrase, it led to a lot of fumbling around and strange justifying.

After all, if you truly don’t know, aren’t you supposed to admit it?!

But if we ever did let those words slip out, she had a follow-up question that slowly started to take root in our classroom culture. She would say, “What if you DID know?”

At first, our brains fought back with “Well, I definitely DON’T know, so that’s a stupid question.” But if we finally decided to let ourselves ponder it seriously surprising answers would start to emerge.

“Well, if I did know, I would say that he wanted to be treated as an equal,” we might have surmised, or suggested some other such guess that fit with the few pieces of the puzzle that we did actually know. And from there, the conversation would unfold, and often it miraculously led to the answer we needed to move forward.

As I’ve pondered this amazing little scene that played out again and again in that class, it has produced 3 precious insights that I can use in sticky situations in my life.

** Disclaimer: This exercise is not meant for questions with concrete, obvious answers like “Where’s the hole punch?” or “Who is leading the meeting today?” It is for more complicated questions like “What do I want in my career?” or “What is the best course of action?”

don't know what to do

1. The phrase “I don’t know…” shuts down the conversation, or at least my end of it. It does indeed put me on the bench- no longer in the game. And when I do this, I lose any power or agency that I do have to change things. I’m suddenly just a spectator.

2. By asking “What if I did know?” I am directing my brain to go find the pieces of the puzzle that I do have, instead of focusing on the ones I don’t. Even if you don’t have all the pieces you want, you may have what you need, or know which to go find next.

3. Even without the whole picture, almost always I DO KNOW ENOUGH to take the next step. Instead of being overwhelmed and stopping, I allow myself to just slow down and go step by single step. I am not required to know everything or predict the future. I can do my absolute best, based on what info I do have, and keep moving.

In the case of my family trip, I finally remembered to apply these insights and get myself back in the game. I admitted to my husband that I did know more than I was saying. It was my family, after all, and even though they weren’t coming out and saying what they wanted, I decided to make a really good guess about what would make then happy on the trip. And guess what- I did know!

And that is not the only place I’ve applied this mental switcheroo lately. I am so happy to be guest-blogging for Chrysta for this 10-week series! And when I heard the thought “I don’t really know how to write a blog….” I was able to ask “What if I did know?” and it made this blog come tumbling out to share! I hope you’ve enjoyed this one, and look forward to hearing your thoughts on this.

I’m pleased to introduce Amanda Fewell, who will be guest-blogging at Live Love Work for the next 10 weeks!


Amanda’s passion is working with women who find themselves in higher levels of leadership than they planned – needing to speak, negotiate, or sell. She shares tools to help them stay in Joy & Authenticity as they lead. You can find out more at Everyday-Light.com.

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