Every day we communicate in different ways, with many people. It is something simple and that we do with apparent great simplicity.
The obstacle is the difficulty of communicating what we actually want to share with others. In everyday life, we often fail to communicate what we want with family and friends, colleagues and managers, perhaps without even realising it.
When knowledge could be our limit
The core of the problem is our familiarity with the subject. Once we know something deeply, we tend to oversee how it is perceived from others who don’t know this topic very well. This makes it difficult for us to share our knowledge with them, because we can’t fully understand our listeners’ mental state. Therefore, we tend to take some notions for granted, we don’t explain everything in detail, and we assume that the person we are talking to knows what we know, or worst, that they know more than us about the topic.
For example, the CEO of a large company explains a business strategy to all the employees with an idealistic and abstract speech. In this case, the CEO hasn’t clearly defined the key point of the strategy and its true value, leaving his audience with a not well-defined summary of the goals and the work that needs to be done. As a consequence, they don’t know, and therefore understand, the underlying meaning of the project, losing the true sense and meaning of the speech. The result is that the employees receive only abstract and unclear concepts, which are not helpful in the implementation of the actual strategy.
Communication as a strong point within the company
This paradoxical situation is a cognitive bias called ‘curse of knowledge’ that has been researched and studied in 1989 by economists of the calibre of Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein, and Martin Weber. This happens because we overestimate the knowledge of our listeners, due to an asymmetry of competences. The cognitive bias describes a situation where a very competent person, wrongly assumes that the interlocutors have the same knowledge.
The result is that the listener evaluates the speaker as unable to make themselves understood, and at the same time, the one speaking does not take into account the fact that the listener may not understand what they are saying. When we are very competent on a topic and know it in detail, it is difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of those who are listening and may know very little or nothing about the subject. We tend to take so many things for granted, because they are too trivial for us, and therefore we do not set the communication in an adequate way, not taking these aspects into account.
It is difficult to share what we are thinking of, but not impossible
For these reasons, when you want to explain something, it would be ideal to recreate in your mind a condition of absence of knowledge on a topic, in order to have a similar mindset to the people who are listening to you. Omitting to do so leads to great difficulties in explaining things in a way that anyone can easily understand.
In a lot of situations where we try to explain something, we forget we are in the strong position of already having clear concepts and knowledge of the subject, unlike those who are going to listen to us. Therefore, it becomes essential to be aware of this bias and try to limit the informative asymmetry between the speaker knowledge and the listener perception, in a way that the communication process is facilitated. The impact that this bias can have on counterparts is really disruptive: when we communicate, we are used to focus on the knowledge delivery, as one of the most required skills at a professional level, but perhaps it would be more appropriate to focus on unbiased communication skills.
It is fair to say that continuous updating is an essential requirement for individuals, both in business and in daily life. As far as we take it as a challenge and not as a limit.
Written by Riccardo Pandini.
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