Attention Speech-Language Pathologists: It’s OK to Not Know the Answer Sometimes

Attention Speech-Language Pathologists: It’s OK to Not Know the Answer Sometimes

Let me walk you through a scenario that I think a lot of us speech-language pathologists have been in before. You’re having a meeting about a student with a parent or another educator and someone asks you a question. However, as smart as you are (and trust me, I know you’re VERY smart), you might not actually KNOW the answer to this specific question off the top of your head.

What do you do in a scenario like this?

Well, there’s pretty much two roads you could travel down. The first road is one that I like to call Awkward Street. This consists of you verbally dancing around the question in an awkward manner. Awkward Street has lots of potholes. In an attempt to seem like you know the answer, you blurt out some “big words” that you think make you sound “smart” as you attempt to drive down that bumpy street. All of this is in hopes that you’re able to convince the question-asker that you can’t be stumped. But does this work?

Meh. Maybe sometimes.

What about the other road, though? Let’s call it Honesty Street. This one consists of you being completely honest that you don’t know the answer off the top of your head, but you’ll find out as soon as possible. This is a much smoother street – not a single pothole to be found. To me, the honest response displays sincerity and it communicates to the question-asker that you value the question enough to NOT dance around it. And because of that value, you take the initiative to seek out a clear and concise answer. So if you ask me, it seems like Honesty Street is the best road to travel down.

But why do some SLPs choose to go down Awkward Street?

When I first started out as an SLP, I was a clinician who would choose to travel down Awkward Street every now and again because I never wanted to be seen as an clinician who didn’t know his stuff. I would verbally dance around a question I didn’t know the answer to because I had this false idea in my head that all SLPs should know every single answer to any single question that related to speech-language pathology. I was too early into my career to truly understand that it’s OK to not know the answer sometimes.

Seriously, it’s OK to not know the answer sometimes.

Before we go any further though, when I say it’s OK to not know the answer sometimes, I don’t mean it’s OK to not know answers to basic questions like, “Mr. Raj, what’s the real name of that voice box thingy inside a person’s throat?” Yes, if you’re an SLP then you absolutely should be able to answer basic questions like that (and for the record, the answer is larynx, LOL!).

I’m not talking about not knowing answers to basic questions.

I’m talking about not knowing answers to questions that usually revolve around something that’s so brand-new that you just haven’t had the opportunity to hear about it yet. Questions such as:

  • “Everyone is talking about the brand-new method to teaching articulation called X. I’m wondering if you think it would work with (student’s name)?”
  • “I’m sure you’re familiar with the brand-new approach to promoting social skills called X. I’m wondering if you think it would work with (student’s name)?”
  • “I’ve heard about this brand-new structured literacy program called X. I’m wondering if you think it would work with (student’s name)?”

In the past, I would verbally dance around questions like that.

To those types of questions, when I first started out as a clinician, you could find me traveling down Awkward Street. I would buckle up and brace myself for the bumpy ride by nervously responding with things like, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of X before, I mean, who hasn’t heard of X . . .” Then, I would hold on to the steering wheel tightly and drive straight into a long run-on sentence where I would try to give off the impression that I actually did hear of X. What a reckless driver I was. Silly me.

So listen up.

I’m here to tell you what I wish someone told me years ago – it’s OK to not know the answer sometimes. I’m writing this blog post for you. Yes YOU. I see you reading this post. I’m waving to you. Do you see me waving? You do? Good. So now that you see me, listen to me when I say this again:

It’s OK to not know the answer sometimes.

Now that I’ve been a clinician for a while, I know that it’s impossible to know it all. So now, whenever I’m asked a question that contains a bit of terminology that I’m unfamiliar with, I confidently let it be known that I’m not familiar with X. I happily travel down Honesty Street because I’ve come to realize that what’s usually found at the end of Honesty Street is a big ol’ bucket of new knowledge. Either the person explains whatever X is or you go back to your computer and you look up X yourself. Either way, you win because you gain a big ol’ bucket of new knowledge. And new knowledge, well, that’s the fuel that keeps us all trucking along on our never-ending road trip towards becoming the best possible clinicians that we can be.

In closing . . .

Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to say the following out loud to yourself. “It’s OK to not know the answer sometimes.” How did that feel? Pretty good, right? Next, I want you to send a text message to your favorite SLP buddy that reads, “Erik X. Raj told me to tell you that it’s OK to not know the answer sometimes.” And if your friend replies with, “Who’s Erik X. Raj?” – just tell your pal that he’s a cool dude who loves dance parties and Spider-Man.

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