The Danger of I Don’t Know

By Robert H. Wilson

It is safe to say that we do not know that which we do not know. However, intelligent people tend to recognize there are things they do not know, they just have not yet had the opportunity to learn what they have yet to know at some point. Or something like that. 

Ok, it was a long holiday weekend and there has been a lot going on. You’ll have to be a little patient with me today.

In workers’ compensation, the phrase “I don’t know” carries a great deal of weight, and not in a positive sense. In a world full of uncertainties, it is not what people want, or need, to hear. 

Will I completely recover? I don’t know.

Will my claim be paid? I don’t know.

Will I be able to return to work? I don’t know.

When will I be better? I don’t know.

How many times do I have to go through this procedure? I don’t know.

What do I do now? I don’t know.

In reality, the phrase, “I don’t know” often leaves a void in the information an injured worker might use to make informed and rational decisions. In that sense, “I don’t know” is just as impactful as the word “no.” I’ve often said that, in the absence of clear and concise information, cancerous thoughts will grow. “I don’t know” feeds that negativity and can skew the outcome of a workplace injury in a very negative way. In short, “I don’t know” is a litigation maker, right up there with “no,” “denied,” “buzz off,” and “I don’t care.”

A lesson I learned many years ago in customer service was to never leave an existing or potential customer in the dark when we encountered an issue for which I did not immediately know the answer. Rather than just leaving them with a highly unsatisfactory “I don’t know” (or its less refined cousin, “Beats me”), we should instead say, “I don’t know, but I’ll see what I can find out.” By being both honest while extending the offer of further assistance, a negative situation becomes potentially positive. We are honest with the fact that we lack adequate information to answer the question, but in offering further effort have shown an interest in trying to address the issue.

In this manner, “I don’t know” cannot be interpreted as “I don’t care.”

Workers’ compensation is an industry rife with unknowns and incomplete information. Variances in recovery times, responses to medical treatment and therapy, and reactions to the process itself, all make absolute answers difficult to define. Still, when dealing with people essentially lost in a system they often do not understand, making the extra effort to answer the unanswerable can make a difference in how they react and the actions they take. Being honest with an injured worker is critical. If they ask something for which you do not have an answer, it is highly probable that you might have to give them an “I don’t know” in response.

Just don’t leave it hanging at that simple phrase. Follow up with an offer to learn more, or with estimates based on previous experience. Anything is better than leaving them in absolute darkness.

The idea for this post came from the recent California Coalition on Workers’ Compensation Conference held in Anaheim, CA. A speaker was talking about trying to provide clear information to injured workers, and how troublesome the phrase “I don’t know” can be. I simply wrote down, “The danger of I don’t know” in my notes so that I would be prompted at some point in the future to write about the concept. Unfortunately for the speaker and the session they were in, my stellar note-taking skills are not as stellar as they should be. If you asked me who gave me the idea or what session it was in, I’d have to ironically tell you, “I don’t know.”

But I will certainly see if I can find that out for you.

This article originally appeared in the Outreach Center of Bob Wilson is Co-founder and President of, as well as author of the award-winning blog, “From Bob’s Cluttered Desk.” He can be reached at 855-706-8473 ext 101

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