I understand that I need to be more courageous in order to show up more confidently, but it can be really hard to put this into practice at a law firm. How can I get over my fear of not knowing enough and not being absolutely sure of my advice to clients — especially when I’m with a senior partner who has more experience?
I recently conducted a 360 degree feedback interview for a Counsel I was coaching. A recurring theme was that she was “one of the smartest people in the firm” but needed to “appear more confident” in meetings and calls when giving advice. One of the most helpful observations came from the senior partner, who noted that the most important thing she could work on is learning how to say “I don’t know” with confidence.
Four Ways to Say “I Don’t Know” With Confidence
1. Set a clear bottom line
The easiest path to courage is to set a clear bottom line.The fact is that no one knows everything — not even the most senior members of your firm. So first, remember that your job is not to know everything off the top of your head (or worse yet, to guess blindly). Your job is to know how to find the right answer.
2. Have a few “go to” phrases
Next, remember that we all have moments where we don’t have the answer. The solution is not to try to plan answers for every single contingency — that’s impossible! Instead, I highly recommend having a few “go to” phrases that convey “I don’t know” with confidence, such as:
- “That’s a great question/idea. Let me give it some thought and get right back to you.”
- “I have some initial thoughts but I’d like to check into a couple of things — may I call you back in X minutes?”
- “My colleague Jane is our firm’s expert in X — I think her insights could be extremely valuable.
- I’ll speak with her after our call and get back to you. In the meantime, have you considered Y and Z?” (pivot to your ideas/areas of expertise.)
3. Check your body language and tone
Finally, remember to deliver your advice clearly, concisely, and directly; confidence is primarily conveyed in HOW you speak. Be mindful of your body language (even if you’re on the phone!) and tone. Eliminate minimizing phrases like “Ummm,” “I’m not sure” or “it could be A or maybe it’s B,” etc. It’s fine to provide choices or include caveats — but be clear. “I see three options. I believe number 3 is the best, and I’d like to hear your thoughts.”
4. Say no to equivocating
Above all, do not equivocate. Equivocating produces the worst outcome – you have exposed yourself by giving advice AND your insecurity will make your partner and/or client feel insecure — eroding their longer-term trust in you.
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