Often you would have come across instances where you are in a meeting at work or in a Zoom Call ; listening intently, and then suddenly have no idea what the speaker is talking about? It’s as if the person started speaking another language.
This is a great example of The Curse of Knowledge (TCOK). What is this “curse” exactly?
This concept was discussed in the book “Made to Stick”, to talk about a situation where an expert is unable to communicate his/her ideas to novices because he/she has forgotten what it’s like to be unfamiliar with their core subject
“Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed us’. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”
Consider this example:
You should visualise yourself asking a policeman for directions? They may be willing to help you, very co-operative and with smiles explain the directions to you. But it might become tough to understand.
The policeman knows the route. He wants to help. So why can’t he get his message across? Why are you left confused?
This is because of the great depth of his knowledge. In his head, he knows every nook and corner, the entire contours of the way, the intervening landmarks. It is etched firmly in the head
But that’s the issue
Because he is an expert, he unconsciously assumes everyone has the same mental images. So he leaves out details he takes for granted. And what you hear is muddled and confusing.
And sadly, he doesn’t even realise that
That’s exactly The Curse of Knowledge
The Curse of Knowledge is a universal phenomenon of the brain. It effects everyone – that’s you, me and anyone you’ve ever worked, and will work with, in the future.
So what can we learn from the policeman’s failed directions?
Experts are like the policeman who’s walked the same path for years. Since they have assimilated years of knowledge and experience, they take the same for granted.
Thus like the policeman, when they talk to novices, they omit details that seem blindingly obvious; they miss out steps that spell out the logic. Without realising, experts leave out the information you need most to understand their subject.
No matter how willing, experts can’t always make themselves clear. Because they don’t know what people need to get it.
When you delegate to your team members – as an expert, you can visualise very clearly what you want to be done. So you believe that you are communicating clearly to your team member. But there’s a villain of natural psychology that limits your capability to communicate clearly and that villain is the curse of knowledge
In HR, often if you are an expert, you could have become so steeped in technical HR skills that you face challenges explaining HR details to those outside of HR
Employees complain they can’t figure out what HR professionals are trying to tell them. The messages HR sends are too complex. Too convoluted. Too confusing. It’s seldom clear what employees should do with the information. . So, it’s time to overcome your curse of knowledge so you can improve your communications.
For example, leaders at the top will oftentimes speak rather abstractly about corporate strategy. A CEO may aim to “unlock shareholder value” with some new complicated manoeuvre or “exploit synergies” through an acquisition. But what exactly does this mean for employees on the front lines? What actions should they take to align with such a strategy?
Frame Your Thoughts in Your Listener’s World
Simply put, your focus needs to be on them, not you. It’s much easier said than done, but the good news is any level of effort you put into making these changes will likely yield positive results.