The title is a bit of an exaggeration, but intended to make the point that contrary to common belief, our own articulation of an idea adds to our understanding of that idea. At face value that doesn’t make much sense, after all we must know what we think about an issue; how else are we able to talk about it? But the reality is that what we don’t necessarily know what we know. Has it happened to you that, as you begin to describe to another person a complex issue you want to ask them about, the answer pops into your mind before you finish the question? And you end up saying, somewhat sheepishly, “Nevermind, I think I’ve just realized what the answer is.” In trying to explain the situation, your mind has put the bits and pieces you know about the topic together in a new way and provided a new understanding.
Johnson and Johnson, researchers at the University of Michigan, who have conducted studies of conversations, explain it this way. “In these meetings individuals exchange their data, conclusions, reasoning and questions with others. Although the cognitive benefits to the receiver of such an exchange are apparent, there is evidence that it is the speaker who makes the greatest cognitive gains from the exchange. Individuals organize information differently if they are going to present it to others than if they are trying to understand it solely for their own use. It is in the act of speaking that people tend to organize cognitively what they know.” They learned when they talked!
This interesting phenomenon has a number of possible knowledge management implications for me:
It implies that if I am stating an argument to convince someone else of the reasonableness of my position, I would be wise to pause periodically to give the other person an opportunity to articulate his or her thinking on what I’ve said. Even if the other’s response is only to offer a counter argument, that person will learn something new about their own position by “the way they have organized information differently…. to present it.”
It implies that if I deliver a presentation or a lecture it would be helpful to make time for those listening to have a conversation with each other – a way for them to make mental connections that otherwise might never be made. (This is a part of the rationale behind my rant on “Are There Any Questions”)
It implies that if I want another team to learn from the lessons my team or project has garnered, the transfer would work better if I arrange a conversation between the two groups than as a document. The conversation would provide the opportunity for the recipient to think out loud about how the lessons relate to their own work.
It implies that I read an great article I will incorporate the ideas more fully into my own cognitive map, if I tell a colleague what I have just read (or write a blog about it).
It implies that in the debrief of that great project my team just accomplished, the team is more likely to be able to understand how they achieved that success, if I gather the group to talk to about what they learned. They will learn what they learned in the talking.
What a wonderful phenomenon - we learn when we talk. It has all kinds of uses