"I'm sorry, I don't understand."

This phrase is not too difficult, and if you’re like some folks I’ve had to deal with recently, will serve you immensely well. Say it with me: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” Recently, I have dealt with several individuals who have not, for whatever reason, used this phrase. Most, but not all, have been clients of mine who were unable to answer a question that I posed them in the course of doing business. Here are a couple examples:

Client1: “We want to back up XYZ data.”
Me: “Certainly. What are you trying to protect against? Hacking? Accidental deletion? Conflicting versions? A service outage?”
Client1: <silence>
Suggested responses: “I don’t know,” “I had not thought of that. Can we discuss this further?” or “Sorry, I don’t understand.”

Client2: “We need to migrate several websites from ABC host to 123 host.”
Me: “Okay, we will need login information for ABC for sites HIJ and KLM. Do you have this?”
Client2: <silence>
Suggested response: “Yes, I do,” “no, I do not,” “I don’t know what you are asking for,” or “Sorry, I don’t understand.”

Even if my response has been uber-geeky, what is the harm in saying “I don’t know” or “I don’t have that information?” This is not an IQ test, it’s simply asking a question. If you go to your doctor and he asks you “are you allergic to any medications,” and you don’t know, what is your response? Sit and dumbly stare at him? NO! You say “I don’t know.” When April 15 approaches and it’s time to file your taxes, and you’re confronted with a dizzying array of forms and applications, do you say “Eh, not tonight,” and throw the pile in the trash? Not likely. You get help, or ask for clarification. If your mechanic asks “when was the last time you had your brakes checked,” do you stare at your shoes and pretend you didn’t hear the question? No! You say “I don’t remember.”
I recently found myself at the DMV to get my new driver’s license. The following conversation ensued:

(Completely unnecessarily surly) registrar: “Have you ever had anything in [state]?”
Me: “Sorry… ‘had anything?'”
(Completely unnecessarily surly)?registrar: “Identification or something?”
Me: “You’re holding my firearms ID card in your hand.”
(Completely unnecessarily surly)?registrar: “No, from the DMV.”

Aha! NOW I understood what she was asking for. See how my response created a dialog which allowed us to get to the bottom of the issue and for me to answer her question so we could proceed?
The same can, and should, be done with any technical instance you find yourself in. It seems, however, that there is some sort of stigma associated with technology solutions and their purveyors that somehow makes it okay to just ignore questions they pose in the course of trying to help people solve the problems they face. Why is that?
I’m calling for an end to that, and here’s what I’ll do. If I pose to you a question that you don’t know how to answer, I promise that I will re-phrase it at least two times to try to make it as simple and non-technical as possible, so that you do not feel threatened by the question (or by me, if that’s the problem). It’s the least I can do. What I ask from you is this: just give me an answer, any answer, other than <silence>.

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