Puzzled man

What are you on about?

If you want to influence others, get your point across or give instructions that people can follow, you have to address them in a way that they can understand.

My uncle, when stone deaf in his later years, would often begin a sentence with “You are probably wondering about …”. He was usually wide of the mark but he was at least thinking of what his audience might be thinking before launching into what was on his mind.

So often people baffle and mystify because they give vent to what is going on inside their own head without considering how it might be received by you. This seems to be a frequent dramatic device in soap operas, where characters talk past each other and create misunderstandings that then have to be resolved. But it is all too common in the real world – from people “talking at” you to incomprehensible sets of instructions with unexplained jargon, incomplete logic or missing details.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker calls this the “curse of knowledge” that leads people to assume that their audience knows everything that they know or has the same picture in their head. They have difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone not to know something that they know. As a result they don’t explain the context or they skate over details.

Silo Mentality

This is a problem within organisations too when people become organised within silos. They develop their own concepts, language and imperatives. They understand each other but may have difficulty being understood by others outside their own circle. And with their parochial preoccupations they may be less sensitive to important things going on around them.

Pinker makes the point that we do not notice the “curse” because the curse prevents us from noticing it. It takes a degree of effort and imagination to begin to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

In conversation you have a good chance to put this right, picking up on nods of agreement or frowns of puzzlement and asking for clarification if necessary. But writing requires a particular effort to anticipate the difficulties that others may have in understanding what we think we are saying.

If you want to influence, inspire and carry others with you, it helps to go to where they are and see their point of view. If you can address issues in a way that they can understand you have a much better chance of carrying them with you to where you want to go.

Jo Ouston
September 2015