If you are trying to help a direct report, a colleague or a client through a problem and they continually respond with “I know,” it is important to know two things:
1. They are blocking you.
2. They are probably unaware that they are doing this.
How do I know that they are blocking? Listen to what comes after “I know.” Usually it will be an explanation or an excuse for why they can’t do what you just said. “I know” often becomes a deflection or a way to appease the speaker. And it often works.
We look for cues when we speak to tell whether the listener is paying attention. When people nod their head, look us in the eyes and say “I know” it can give us the impression that they understand. Which makes whatever happens after that very confusing.
When leaders begin to have clarity around this, they can sometimes get upset with the employee or colleague because it feels like they were lied to. What is more likely the case is that the person they were talking to was trying to protect himself in the best way he knew how. That is to agree without being vulnerable.
“I know” is a way to say “I hear you” without having to admit that I may not have known this before. When gone unchecked, this can lead to a lot of confusion and a passive aggressive style of communication in an office setting.
If you are the type of employee who tends to say “I know” when hearing advice or feedback or any kind, try to change that to “I understand” or “I hear you.” While it will feel awkward at first, the transition will help you to begin to think differently about what you are hearing, transitioning from a posture of defense to one of openness.
If you are a leader or manager who hears this a lot from some of your best employees, the challenge is to name that it is happening.
Example: “I notice that when you say ‘I know,’ you usually follow it up with a defensive statement, which makes me think that you don’t know. If you don’t agree, then tell me. Or if you don’t understand, tell me that. Otherwise, I would prefer that you just say “I understand” so that I can trust that you heard me.”
While this may seem a little forced, when you are talking with people who are defended and have a habit of deflecting, the most important thing you can do is draw their attention to it.
Hard to keep the habit if the boss is aware of what you are doing.