Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Power of "I Don't Know"

Courtesty of Nerd Girl Problems

I am not sure as this is really a problem as much as it is a fact. Friends and acquaintances know I am bright and enjoy my fair share of trivia and they somehow associate that with being able to answer any and all questions about... anything. Add a uniform with a shiny badge and a flat hat, and you've got yourself a perceived walking, talking Google machine. Here's the thing: I am not an encyclopedia. I consider myself a pretty smart cookie, but I don't always know all the answers. Can you imagine if you clicked "search" and Google returned with "I don't know?" What kind of world would we live in if Google did not know?

Answering questions provide learning opportunities for both the visitor and the interpreters. Often I am learning as much as the visitors who are asking the question. On a scale, I don't know what would weigh more valuable: knowing the answers or knowing where to find the answers. Take the weightier of those two and measure it against the ability to synthesize information or disseminate information or engage in a manner that both answers the question while creating a meaningful experience; what will prove the most important?

When I worked at Stones River National Battlefield, especially during my first season and even some of my second season, I was terrified of any "Q & A" time. A time for questions served as another opportunity for visitors to play another round of "trick the ranger." OK, it wasn't that bad, but I never knew what kinds of questions to expect and I had not given myself permission to say, "I don't know." On one of my first battlefield tours, I had a visitor raise his hand and ask where a company of a regiment was located during that moment of my battle story (I believe we were in the Slaughter Pen at the time). I don't remember doing anything other than my fish-out-of-water move (complete with incomprehensible sounds out of my gasping mouth). That planted a seed early on that all questions would be detailed and specific and visitors would want a detailed and specific response.

I have since learned a little more poise and grace when asked questions that I can't answer off hand. I can't recall specifically when I started to give myself permission to say, "I don't know," but I often learned more in seeking those answers than I would have learned providing a canned answer (or a fish-out-of-water answer). "In case I forget, ask me again at the end of the program and I will see what I can find out." Usually, visitors are happy for the extra attention at the end of the program.

Interpretation requires a set of skills that is part reception, part perception, part delivery, part (may I say) acting, part relaying, part purveying, and all understanding. The biggest part of understanding is knowing that you can't know everything. Interpreters should understand that their engagement with visitors is an experience for both the visitor and the interpreter. After a visitor asks a question that requires extra research, the interpreter can use that extra nugget and tuck it away for later use. Interpreters can also use the question time to engage just a little further. Why did the visitor ask that particular question? Was there something in particular that piqued interest? Was there something personal? Is there an opportunity for the interpreter to provide more than information; is there an opportunity to provoke further thought?

That is what perceived walking, talking Google machines are missing. They can't engage further, they can't see if there are more layers to the questions, they don't know if there are other questions to ask. Absolutely, knowledge of the resource and the ability to answer questions the moment those questions are asked have merit. But don't underestimate the power of "I don't know."

*Reminder: these thoughts are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Park Service.

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