By April M. Stewart, Special MWAF Contributor
You don’t know what you don’t know, right?
Case in point: a few years ago I read an article about a farmer’s experience speaking to a group of urban moms in Chicago. These otherwise educated and well-informed women thought that seed company signs posted at fields along roadways were a statement of ownership. They thought the signs meant that these were corporate farms owned by corporate entities. Of course, as farmers we know that these signs simply alert other farmers to a particular seed variety so if you see a fantastic looking crop you can get your hands on some of that seed for next season.
We don’t know what we don’t know.
We make assumptions based on what we do know or what’s before us in black and white. Our brain pulls all the information stored under a related theme and, with lightning speed, constructs meaning or surmises an answer. We don’t know what we don’t know, because the information just isn’t there.
The flip side of this is the Curse of Knowledge.
Every farmer to whom I’ve told the seed sign anecdote gets almost the same incredulous look on their face accompanied by a giggle, an eye roll or a ‘wow’, ‘yikes’ or ‘eesh’. They marvel at how someone could come to that conclusion.
But we have an edge where this issue (or anything agriculture related) is involved: knowledge.
The caveat is that possessing knowledge means that you can fall victim to its curse: if you know something, then surely everyone else does, right? The Curse makes it harder for you to understand where the other person is along the learning curve, therefore making it difficult to explain things in a way that would be easier to for them to comprehend.
Once we know something, it’s hard to un-know it. And not being able to un-know it makes it difficult to begin a dialogue at the right (and most valuable) starting point. So, how can you remember what it’s like to be a beginner in order to get the right information out in the right way?
- Use stories: It’s not enough to neatly summarize the facts and stats. Stories, analogies and metaphors conjure up and link unknown information to concepts we already know and identify with and create a common language that transforms the abstract into the concrete.
- Nurture a beginner’s mind: Embrace not knowing. With learned beliefs (preconceptions) out of the way, you’ll find yourself in a place of mental openness. No matter how much of an expert you are, if you treat each moment as a blank slate, you’ll be able to maintain shoshin, a Zen Buddhism philosophical concept that means “beginner’s mind”. Be curious about someone else’s knowledge gaps and go on an information exploration adventure with them.
- Create context: Joshua Foer, author of ‘Moonwalking with Einstein’, writes, “It’s about taking information that is lacking in context, lacking in meaning, and figuring out a way to transform it so that it makes sense in the light of all the other things that you have floating around in your mind… If you want to make something memorable, you first have to make it meaningful.”
The Curse of Knowledge can be a huge hurdle to basic understanding and a small misinterpretation can have a massive negative impact.
For effective communication try to remember what it’s like to not know a thing.
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