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Too ignorant to know…

For many people, knowing what they don’t know is just about impossible. These are the people whose behaviour led to the saying “A little knowledge is dangerous” as they don’t understand how little they really know.

Consider a young child who has just learnt that 2×3=6. That child will proudly tell you she knows what multiplication is and how to do it. Yet if you asked her 34×76, she would have no idea how to solve it. As adults, we expect her to have limited understanding and give her time to learn more about multiplication – and encourage her learning to date.

What is a bigger concern is adults who act like that child – they know a few things and assume that makes them an expert – and charge people as if they have an extensive knowledge. Or use their assumed knowledge as a basis for applying for jobs above their level.

I have dealt with suppliers who believe in their own expertise to the point they can’t admit any ignorance or lack of knowledge. They assume a superior attitude to their clients and tell them how to do things, even if they are wrong. And even argue with clients who suggest or request an alternative.

The hard part is in dealing with these people as they aren’t likely to listen enough to learn how little they truly know, or even recognise how much someone has been coaching and helping them.

In some situations, I have taken the time to lead someone towards a greater understanding – and sometimes they have accepted the new knowledge, too! Some tips I have found to be more effective are:

  • never patronise them – they don’t like it any more than the rest of us!
  • occasionally add in why you are doing or requesting something even if you are in the position of being able to tell them. For example, I may say something like “I didn’t include that example because it was negative and I think a positive example will be more effective”
  • maintain their self-esteem by asking questions to either help you or confirm your understanding. Remember that they will have some expert knowledge even if not as much as you want or need!
  • if providing them with resources or information that may help them learn, present it carefully. Instead of “here, you need to read this”, try “I found this article very interesting – what do you think of it?” or “I’m not sure I agree with this document – do you?” or even “I want to go to this seminar – would you mind coming with me in case it gets too technical for me to understand?”
  • put your expected answer in the question so they can be involved in decisions and learn from the process. For example, “I assume that the second quote is better because it includes delivery as well. Do you agree?” may work better than “Which quote should we choose?”

We all have things to learn – and usually the more we learn, the more we realise we have a lot more to learn! So we can hope that giving bits of extra information to an annoyingly ignorant person will lead them to an understanding of their own limitations!

Use your words wisely!