Humans v2.0: Thinking Abstractly and in Frameworks

Humans v2.0: Thinking Abstractly and in Frameworks

I've noticed something that's occupied my thoughts for the better part of the last year:  Many of us live in a communications lie.

I watch it happen all around me.  People think they're communicating with each other, when in fact, they're not.  You think you're really good at communicating?  I bet you're not as good as you think (and neither am I).  And I'll present several arguments here as to why that is so.

Reason #1 That You're Not As Good At Communicating As You Think: Tappers vs. Listeners

Let's start down this path with an excerpt from a great book, "Made To Stick," which delves into the 'Curse of Knowledge.'

"Sadly, there is a villain in our story. The villain is a natural psychological tendency that consistently confounds our ability to create ideas using these principles. It's called the Curse of Knowledge. (We will capitalize the phrase throughout the book to give it the drama we think it deserves.)

Tappers and Listeners

In 1990, Elizabeth Newton earned a Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: "tappers" or "listeners." Tappers received a list of twenty-five well-known songs, such as "Happy Birthday to You" and "The StarSpangled Banner." Each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm to a listener (by knocking on a table). The listener's job was to guess the song, based on the rhythm being tapped. (By the way, this experiment is fun to try at home if there's a good "listener" candidate nearby.)

The listener's job in this game is quite difficult. Over the course of Newton's experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only 2.5 percent of the songs: 3 out of 120.

But here's what made the result worthy of a dissertation in psychology. Before the listeners guessed the name of the song, Newton asked the tappers to predict the odds that the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted that the odds were 50 percent. The tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2. Why?

When a tapper taps, she is hearing the song in her head. Go ahead and try it for yourself , tap out "The Star-Spangled Banner." It's impossible to avoid hearing the tune in your head. Meanwhile, the listeners can't hear that tune , all they can hear is a bunch of disconnected taps, like a kind of bizarre Morse Code.

In the experiment, tappers are flabbergasted at how hard the listeners seem to be working to pick up the tune. Isn't the song obvious? The tappers' expressions, when a listener guesses "Happy Birthday to You" for "The Star-Spangled Banner," are priceless: How could you be so stupid?

It's hard to be a tapper. The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it's like to lack that knowledge. When they're tapping, they can't imagine what it's like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song. This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was 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.

The tapper/listener experiment is reenacted every day across the world. The tappers and listeners are CEOs and frontline employees, teachers and students, politicians and voters, marketers and customers, writers and readers. All of these Groups rely on ongoing communication, but, like the tappers and listeners, they suffer from enormous information imbalances. When a CEO discusses "unlocking shareholder value," there is a tune playing in her head that the employees can't hear."

This idea that the tapper can't "readily re-create our listeners' state of mind" is one of several main issues I see pop up repeatedly when people communicate.  The song is playing so loudly in your head, or to put it another way, you've been drinking the company Kool-Aid for so long, that you can't extricate yourself from your frame of reference enough to convey a concept clearly to someone who's not entrenched in the ideas every day.

The solution?  Frame your points at a much higher level than you'd otherwise think you have to.  Instead of talking about a specific widget, communicate instead about why there's a need for widgets, and what problem they're meant to solve.  Whenever you hear me interrupt and say "let me frame this conversation," 99% of the time it'll be because I believe that the person who's trying to communicate with you failed to do so.  And believe me, a little framing goes a long way.

Reason #2 That You're Not As Good At Communicating As You Think: Conversation Frameworks

Here's the problem: People just don't know how to talk about what they're going to talk about!  Instead, they just start talking about it!

Not sure what I mean?  Well, let me frame it for you.   Whenever you participate in a conversation, there should really be two things you're trying to do:  #1) Understand what the framework of the conversation is, and #2) Communicate and receive specific points.

Everyone always jumps to point #2.  Rarely do people even realize #1 exists.  Here's a concrete example:  Next time you're on a conference call, run a little test.  Start the call by saying, "I'd like to go over our agenda.  Here are all the things I'd like to cover on this call."  And list your items.  When you're done, ask, "are there any other topics that anyone wants to add to the agenda?"

Now, what you asked for were more agenda items.  This goes to point #1 - the goal is to frame out what the conference call is going to be about.  But often - very often - what you'll get, instead, is that people will dive into specific items.  It's the most frustrating exercise, to realize the futility of it, and the difficulty that the human brain has in processing #1.  People will say things like, "Well, I wanted to talk about XYZ.  And the thing about XYZ is that...." and there they go - off talking about specific items when you were trying to frame out the agenda of the call.  Try that test; I'd love to get your comments.

So why's it so important to focus on #1, understanding the conversation's framework, before focusing on #2, diving into specifics?  One big reason is because life is built on expectations.  And you can't accurately set people's expectations without having a framework first.  I.e., things like how many discussion points you're going to be talking about in the hour you have together, or what the main goal is for the conversation/meeting.  Diving into specifics without first understanding the framework is like getting in your car and driving in a certain direction without knowing where you're going.

But the most important reason to understand the framework of a conversation is that usually, there isn't one.   The reason there isn't one is because most people jump right to #2 and fail to create one.  And when you understand that, you can create your own framework for the conversation that furthers your goals.  And that's a very powerful tool to have in your tool chest.

As I recently mentioned, I was recently a juror, and if I ever had to come up with a good way to illustrate this last point, it would be by suggesting that someone participate in or watch a jury deliberation.  Imagine this:  Twelve jurors have just spent two days receiving information from both the prosecution and the defense.  You walk in to the jury deliberation room, ready to decide the defendant's fate.  What's the first thing you should do?

The first thing most people do is point #2.  They start talking about what they just saw.  And that takes time.  A lot of time. And people get into heated discussions and arguments over discrepancies in the evidence that was presented to them.

But the irony is, if you first take some time to define a framework for the conversation, the outcome can be much different.  What we did in our jury was first agree that before anyone started saying anything, we would take a baseline vote on paper ballots.  After all, if everyone agreed that the person was either guilty or not guilty, then what was there to talk about?

One person said they wanted to review the evidence before they did their baseline vote, to refresh his memory on everything.  So, we agreed that we'd pass the evidence around but not talk about the case until we'd done a baseline vote.

And of course, once evidence started getting passed around, people started voicing opinions on one thing or another - again, straight into point #2, specifics.

But with a little guidance and reminders, we were able to get a baseline vote done, and it turned out that 10 jurors thought the defendant was guilty, and two jurors were undecided.  But it became very obvious to everyone in the room that we were largely in agreement.  Our deliberations, which could have taken the better part of a day, ended up taking just 50 minutes, because a framework was introduced before jumping into specifics.

Reason #3 That You're Not As Good At Communicating As You Think: Mixing Issues

This one will be quick:  Don't mix issues.  And when you see other people mixing issues (and they will), make it a point to stop the conversation, separate out the issues, and ensure that each is addressed individually.  This is especially important when people's emotions rise.  Someone will have some deep seated issues about a person or a topic and use an unrelated (or tangentially related) conversation to bring up his or her own agenda.  Many people also do it accidentally, not realizing that they are mixing two disparate issues.  Whenever I see this happening, I literally say "we're mixing two issues here.  Let's separate them out and talk about them individually.  Issue # 1 is..." etc.

Reason #4 That You're Not As Good At Communicating As You Think: Abstract Thinking and the Fate of the Human Race

This is where Humans v 2.0 come in to play.  In order to improve our communication skills and think and communicate in frameworks, we also have to ramp up our abstract thinking skills.  We live in a world now where one person's actions can be much more detrimental than before.  Think of the severity of the issue this way:  A human can walk into a job, school, or public space and kill many human beings just by pulling on a little piece of metal - a trigger.  That wasn't the case hundreds of years ago.   One person can use a set of launch codes to launch missiles at hundreds of thousands or millions of people.

All these threats, and others like, say, global warming, are more abstract than our evolutionary brains may be able to handle.  Sure we can grasp global warming in theory, but we as humans are wired to react to things we can actually see and touch.  Because tens of thousands of years ago, those were the types of problems our species faced.   But today, by the time we can actually see the sea levels rising, or by the time we see the missiles coming our way, it'll be too late.

Josh Greene, a Harvard professor, argues in this excellent Radiolab podcast, that human beings have to tamp down our primitive common-sense instincts and ramp up our abstract thinking.

What's your take on all this?  How good a communicator do you feel you are?  What are some of the traits of the best communicators you've met?  I'd love to hear your comments below.