The Curse of Knowledge

joe —  Sat 5-Mar-11 — 3 Comments
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Finger TapLet’s play a little game. I want you to think of a common tune that we would both know, like Happy Birthday or Jingle Bells. Now play out the rhythm of the song by tapping your finger on the table and see if I can guess the song.

Before we start, make a guess – if we were to do this for 100 very well known songs, how many would I get right? If you were like most you would have said 50 or half of them. If I were like most people in a 1990 study by Stanford researcher Elizabeth Newton, I would only get 3.

Why the big discrepancy? Chip Heath, author of Made To Stick calls this the curse of knowledge.

Once people know some piece of information, they find it hard to imagine what it was like before they knew it. Their own knowledge makes it harder for them to communicate, and thus it is a “curse.”

The best teachers know this well. I would contend that 50% of teacher’s job is being able to explain a concept and the other 50% is truly understanding what it is like to not know it. In other words they are good at knowing their destination and, equally important, they know the student’s starting point.

You Are HereThat seems logical – if you want to know how to get somewhere you have to know where you are. That’s all good for us individually, but isn’t this really hard when we have to lead someone else to a destination?

Think about a typical day – how many conversations do you have that require you to move someone from one level of understanding to another? Consider all of the emails, hallway conversations, and interactions with your kids. I think 90% of the conversations I have during a day are either me moving someone else or someone else trying to move me. Our day is one big interaction based on influencing each other.

If so much of our day is spent trying to influence each other what skills would we work on to improve ourselves?

Seek FirstThat’s what G. Richard Shell, author of Bargaining for Advantage wanted to know as well. Few are as effective at moving people from one state to another as a professional negotiator, so he asked “What do skilled negotiators do that average negotiators do not?” The simple answer is that skilled negotiators spend 38% of their interaction time with clients asking questions while less skilled ones only utilize 18% of that time. In other words over a third of the time trying to influence someone else was used to find out where they were.

Replay yesterday’s conversations, the 90% where you needed to influence someone. How much of your time was spent explaining rather than asking? Was it 38%?

Mine wasn’t. I need to work on that.

Today’s Question
What are some of the common questions that you ask to better understand someone’s starting point?

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  • http://www.andrewfuqua.com/ Andrew Fuqua

    > What are some of the common questions that you ask to better understand someone’s starting point?

    Wouldn’t that vary by problem domain? My problem domain is process, typically but not always related to software development, and the value systems that may or may not support the status quo. I spend a lot of time asking people how work gets done in their shop, about their background, what problems they perceive, what successes they are having, what they value, and how they wish things were. I try to discern where their safety comes from, because most can’t articulate that if directly asked.

    I have a distinct advantage with this problem: I get lots and lots of practice at this, with the exact same topic. With most people, the topic probably changes often. It gets easier after the first 100 times.

    You are right: listening is key.

    • http://thestrandedstarfish.com Joe Kleinwaechter

      Having watched you in action, you are indeed very good at listening. I especially like your question centered around what they value. That can be a game changing question or lead to a major disconnect if you don’t know it.

  • Carol

    I love the way you get me to think. ;> IMHO, people love to discuss what went amiss and those details, rather that looking for the better ending point.

    I would ask

    What is the best possible resolution?

    And why is that resolution preferred?

    Personally, I perfer not to address where someone started, I just focus on what can be better.