Three Words That Can Change Everything

three words

Okay. I get it. You looked at the title and started thinking “I’m pretty sure I know what three words she means.”

Am I right?

And let me take a wild guess at your top choices . . .

       “I love you.”

       “I am sorry.”

       “I am here.”

Maybe, if you’ve seen my TED talk, you would say:

       “I see you.”

My friends, those are all great, awesome guesses. And, of course, all those phrases are wise. Wonderful. And . . . wrong.

Here’s the three words I’d like you to consider. They are words that even the Dalai Lama uttered, through an interpreter, many times when a bunch of thought leaders got together to ask him the ways of the world.

The phrase that pays?

       “I don’t know.”

Wow. Yeah. Even the Dalai Lama can admit it. Why can’t we?

When our family member asks us a tough question. When a patient receives a crappy diagnosis. When the world seems like it’s going to hell in a hand basket and someone asks us to make sense of it.

It’s okay to say it. Maybe, right now, as you’re reading this, you could just mouth the words and whisper them . . .

“I don’t know.”

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When you let the air out of your ego and expectations, you realize we are all together in this world.

Why is that admission so powerful?

Because it makes you human. Vulnerable. Honest.

Whether you’re telling your young child that you don’t know why they can only have three strikes instead of four in their little league game. Or you’re tackling the harder stuff, like being asked by your patient’s mother why their daughter couldn’t be saved after a tragic accident.

When you let the air out of your ego and out of your expectations, you realize that we are all  truly together in this world. And that, quite simply, brings us closer.


I don’t know.

If you’ve ever had to utter this phrase and realize it’s power, please share below. Connection matters.

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8 thoughts on “Three Words That Can Change Everything

  1. Jessica

    I have said this several times to patients. Typically just before following with, “I am sorry. I didn’t spend half my life training to not have an answer, but I don’t know. It feels no better for me than it does for you.” I proceed to explain the things we do know or the answers we do have in hopes that helps with the frustration of not having whatever full or complete answer is sought. Perhaps that attempt at justification is as much for me as it is for the patient, but regardless I hope the patient knows I care and am saddened by not having an answer.

    1. Starla Fitch, M.D. Post author

      This is a beautiful and thoughtful way to say, “I don’t know,” Jessica. I’m sure your patients are grateful for the effort you extend. It is impossible to know everything. Even in our fields of specialty! Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  2. David

    Great blog, one to which I’ll be turning more often.
    Depending on the situation, I have a few different ways to say, “I don’t know.” If it’s a simple question, and one that does not pose threat to life or limb, I’ll say, “Well, the definition of ‘Specialist’ is someone who knows more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing.”
    If the mood is more serious, “I don’t know, but I will do my best to find an answer for you.”
    Finally, the somber, “I just don’t know, and I’m sorry that we may never fully know,” is my look-them-square-in-the-eye, soften my face, and try to convey the true empathy you have for them and the situation response.

    1. Starla Fitch, M.D. Post author

      David, thank you for your insight on the different ways one can express “not knowing.” Sometimes it’s hard to admit, but honesty can go a long way with patient trust. Take care.

  3. Jim Kocjancic

    Hello! I just happened upon your blog and am loving it! You and I seem to have the same goal in our writing and congratulate you on focusing on the humanistic side that emphasizes compassion and empathy. Well done.


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