I’m currently coaching two clients who are struggling with same issue. Despite (or maybe because of) being extremely high achieving female lawyers at the top of their game, having reached their positions through hard work, resilience and consistently performing at the highest level – both of them are battling a very particular form of anxiety; the fear of ‘not knowing’ the answer – or the FONK as I like to call it!
I remember this fear well. Sitting in meetings with my boss or with clients, answering quick fire questions about whatever complex transaction I was working on at the time; dreading the one I wouldn’t be able to answer. I didn’t know what that question would be, but I was sure it was out there and headed my way.
It’s a surprisingly common and serious affliction – particularly among high achievers who have extraordinarily high expectations of themselves, and who willingly (or compulsively) strive for perfection in everything they do. For them, to sit in a meeting and not know the answer to a question from a client or someone higher up the food chain, to face an unexpected problem and not have the solution, is about more than simply admitting they are not perfect. It’s a threat to their whole identity, a rupture that threatens the very core of their being. Even if at a logical level they realise that ‘not knowing’ isn’t life or even career threatening, at an emotional level, it feels devastating.
If any of this sounds familiar, then perhaps you have noticed the parallels with imposter syndrome, that unique form of self doubt suffered by high achievers who feel they don’t deserve their success and fear being exposed as fraudulent. The two are definitely linked – and that’s why I’m treating the FONK as imposter syndrome’s annoying younger sister! But how can you identify whether it’s affecting your performance? Have a look at the following questions and answer honestly.
- Do you experience crippling anxiety and acute stress before, during and after meetings?
- Do you ever feel that not knowing the answer is the worst position you could be in?
- Do you ever feel that not knowing something means you are no good at your job and don’t deserve your success?
- Do you spend hours over-preparing in order to be sure you will know the answer to every possible question and not be caught out?
- Do you find it difficult to say ‘I don’t know’?
- When you are asked a question you don’t know the answer to, do you feel that this is the moment that you might finally be exposed as a fraud?
If you have answered yes to most, or all of these questions, then don’t worry, you are not alone. Even though I coach clients to effectively deal with the fear of not knowing, I have experienced and continue to experience it sometimes.
It particularly used to affect me with my public speaking. As a professional speaker on imposter syndrome and career and life success for female lawyers, most of my talks include at least 15 minutes of Q&As at the end where the audience get to ask about the content I’ve delivered, often bringing their own unique circumstances into play. I used to be so terrified of those sessions; scared to death of the question I wouldn’t be able to respond to adequately and feeling that unless I knew ALL the answers, I couldn’t claim to be an expert. It was that old chestnut imposter syndrome again, in a slightly different guise; that fear of being found out coupled with the certainty (in my own head at least) that not knowing meant being inadequate, not up to the job and being fully exposed.
So how can we tackle this paralysing fear of not knowing?
Face the fear
As with imposter syndrome, hiding from the discomfort of how you feel about not knowing is not the solution and can often make it worse. If you are caught in a cycle of always expecting yourself to know the answer, and feeling terrified and inadequate when you realise you don’t, it’s time to stop and take a deeper look at what’s going on. What exactly is your fear? (e.g. not knowing the answer). If that fear materialised, what do you think would happen, what would it mean? (e.g. I’d look stupid. It would prove I couldn’t do my job. It would mean I’m no good. I could get fired.) These are tough questions to explore, but necessary ones. You need to get to the core of what your fear is about before you can start to conquer it.
Review the evidence
Think of a time in the past when you didn’t know an answer but you still had a positive outcome. What did you do then? Did you wing it? Did you ask for advice? Did you own up to not knowing the answer? Understand that ‘not knowing’ need not always be as catastrophic as you think.
Shift your focus
Concentrate on the positives about your knowledge of the topic at hand. As you prepare for a meeting, a presentation, a pitch etc, ask yourself this: what DO I know about this? Grab a pen and paper and start writing a list and number every single item you can think of. Better still, challenge yourself to find 100 things (however seemingly obvious) you do know and could talk about. Don’t stop as soon as your mind goes blank. Commit to spending 15/20 minutes on this exercise. If you find yourself staring into space, that’s good. Stay focused on the question and more answers will come. Then when you have your 100 items, ask yourself: what does it mean if I know all of these things? What does it say about me? Gain confidence from your positive knowledge.
Articulate what you don’t know
That’s right, I want you to write a list of all the things you don’t know about the topic. For this step it helps to take a step back and ask yourself: what questions am I likely to be asked about this? If I was on the other side of this conversation or meeting, what would I want to know? Use your experience of past similar scenarios to inform the types of questions you have learned to expect. If you anticipate these issues, and research around them, you will have more chance of being able to tackle questions on them if they come up.
Much of the fear of the unknown comes from a lack of preparation, or the wrong kind of preparation. Regarding the former: it’s all too common to assume that people who appear to know the answer, somehow ‘just know’. That somehow they are just brilliant and answers come to them from nowhere. When we see this kind of ‘genius’ in others, it lets us off the hook. It makes us think we haven’t got what it takes, because to have that level of knowledge we’d have to work hard to get it. Well guess what? People work harder than you think. That colleague or partner who stands up and delivers a flawless presentation has worked at it. They’ve done the preparation. They are not winging it nearly as much as you think (or as much as they’d like you to think). Regarding the wrong type of preparation: If you think back to the last time you had to revise for an exam, you’ll remember that you can spend hours reading a text book and then walk into an exam on that very subject and be unable to answer a single question. This is because it’s all about the quality of your revision, not the quantity (amount of hours) you revise. Likewise, when preparing for a meeting or presentation or similar, it’s all about the how. Anticipate questions, practise articulating your answers to the toughest ones. Decide, ahead of time, what is the single most important piece of information you need to convey on the topic.
However well you prepare, you will always find a scenario where you don’t know the answer. The solution here is to be able to respond to a question anyway, in a way that maintains your credibility and indicates where and how you can find the answer. For this, a few choice phrases work beautifully. Some examples: 1) I don’t have that information to hand, but as soon as I get back to my desk I’ll make it a priority to find out. 2) Before answering that question I’d like to consult with an expert/someone with a deeper understanding of the core issues. 3) Rather than risk giving you an incomplete answer now, I’ll make it a priority to get all the information and report back to you.
Apply the same standards to yourself as you do to others
As with its big sister imposter syndrome, part of the problem with the fear of not knowing is the different standards we readily apply to others. When a male colleague says he doesn’t know the answer, or simply wings it, or defers the question, we don’t so easily jump to labelling him as a fraud or think he doesn’t deserve to be where he is. If anything, we might admire his ability to wing it, deflect it, brazen it out or defer the answer to someone else. Try to see yourself objectively in the same light when you are in a similar situation.
Re-examine your fear of not knowing
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, go back to the horrible fear I talked about in point 1 above; the fear that you’re no longer hiding from because you know that it doesn’t serve you to do so; the fear that you are now getting ready to own. Substitute the word fear for the word ‘discomfort’. At the same time, recall the discomfort you feel when you’re about to learn something new or improve on a skill. You don’t like that feeling of not being able to do it, but you know that on the other side of that discomfort is a new or improved skill, a long awaited opportunity or some other reward. Now the next time you have the fear of not knowing ask yourself: what is on the other side of this discomfort? What will I learn? What new opportunity will present itself? As with imposter syndrome, the fear of not knowing can be integral to a high achieving personality – embrace the discomfort and use it to your advantage.
Good luck with tackling the FONK in 2019 – and let me take this opportunity to wish you all a very merry Christmas and a happy and successful New Year!
Caroline Flanagan is a Keynote Speaker, Babyproof Coach and Author of Babyproof Your Career, The Secret to Balancing Work and Family so you can Enjoy It All. Caroline believes passionately in the dream of having it all, and founded Babyproof Your Life to train and prepare ambitious career women for the marathon of working parenthood so they can find their own way to #enjoyitall and #makeitwork. You can reach Caroline at firstname.lastname@example.org