What “I Don’t Know” Really Means, and How to Keep It From Killing Your Progress

How many times have you asked for someone’s opinion or direction and heard, “I don’t know”?

A large part of what we do at Graphicmachine deals with both client and consumer opinions, but “I don’t know” can crop up anywhere from what someone wants for dinner to why they’re in a bad mood to whether they want to continue a relationship.

If you’re going to have effective communication, no matter what the context, you have to be able to push past “I don’t know” and get to the specific meaning for that person. Often, “I don’t know” can come as a response to feeling unsure or vulnerable. Our job is to challenge people to think of new ways to communicate about their business, or to make bold moves, and this can be difficult for anyone.

It is also our job to help. Knowing what the underlying issues are helps us to know how to help our clients get where they need to go.

Below are the most common real meanings behind “I don’t know.” The next time you find yourself up against the phrase, consider which of these (or something else entirely) you’re really dealing with:

Lack of Information

I lack the information or experience I feel I need to feel comfortable committing to a preference.

Lack of Confidence

I actually do have a preference, but I don’t want to tell you because (a) I’m afraid you’ll judge me or (b) I’m afraid I will look foolish or uninformed.

This is moving too fast and I am stalling.

I am struggling to find the words to accurately convey what I am thinking.

I don’t want to admit that I can’t afford and/or staff what you’ve proposed.

I want you to like me, so I want to hold off on a decision until I know what you want.

I don’t like making decisions by myself.

I’ve never made this kind of decision before.

There is another option that you haven’t mentioned and I don’t want to offend you.

Hierarchy Issues

There is someone else to whom I have to defer.

I don’t have decision-making authority.

Decision Paralysis

I have conflicting feelings and I don’t know how to resolve them.

I have a difficult time making decisions in general and this is no different.


This is not a project/conversation/relationship I want to be involved with, so I’m distancing myself from any emotional attachment by not expressing my preferences.

I don’t trust you enough to tell you what I think.

I have past experiences that make this decision an emotional one.

I’m not ready to commit to a decision.

I’m not sure I want to do business with you and I don’t know how to say that.


I am playing games.

It is important to me (for some reason) that I appear to not have already made up my mind.

I was never serious about this in the first place.

Unrelated Issues

Something else is going on in my life right now that makes this seem irrelevant, capricious or bothersome.

I’m in a precarious position and this decision carries more weight than it would normally.

I’m pressed for time.

I’m tired or sick.

There are cultural or gender differences that make me wary of expressing my decision.

How you respond to “I don’t know” when it means someone is sick will probably be very different from how you would respond to “I don’t know” meaning “I don’t want to do business with you.” Some issues can be dealt with directly; if the client is pressed for time, you can schedule a follow-up meeting at a later date or get to the point more quickly. Others (other life events, prior history, tendency toward decision paralysis) are not something that can be solved by you. What you can do, though, is approach the client with compassion instead of frustration. Accept the limitations of a particular client and construct your project around those limitations.

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