Have you ever experienced the curse of knowledge?

What is the curse of knowledge?


Remember that time you tried to explain an abstract concept or idea to a colleague or family member, and they didn’t get it, but it was so simple to you? Or perhaps you had a science teacher who was brilliant, but poor at passing on scientific theories in a way that you could understand.

Maybe you, or that science teacher, were suffering from the ‘curse of knowledge’.

The curse of knowledge is where you have a set of knowledge that the other person does not have and you have forgotten what it is like to not have that knowledge and how long it took you to gain the knowledge. This leads you to make assumptions about what the other person understands.

“Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine not knowing it.”

–Chip & Dan Heath, Made to Stick

Every industry has its jargon, words and phrases that mean something to insiders but are meaningless to newcomers. Just imagine you have a new employee in your centre, an administrative support person with little knowledge of the aged care sector. You start the orientation off by showing the person around the office:

“This file cabinet is where the CHSP client files are stored and the HCP ones over in this drawer.”

“These are the daily tick sheets and we need to ensure that staff complete them correctly so you can upload them into DEX on a weekly basis.”

“Oh, and we have a quality review coming up so we’ll need you to ensure that we are compliant against all the standards.”

Not only are you overloading the person with information about their job and your expectations, but you are throwing these at them using industry acronyms that they are unlikely to be familiar with.

It has most likely taken you a number of years to reach the level of understanding of the aged care industry that you hold. Perhaps you started by learning the basics in a Certificate course and then gained more through your working life. You have probably been able to scaffold the knowledge of new programs and concepts off previously held knowledge. You learnt what you know little bit by little bit – why should you assume that a newcomer to the industry will hold all the information that you do?

We want to be effective in our communication, so how can we overcome this curse?

It’s easy to say put yourself in the shoes of the other person, but in reality this is difficult to do because of the issues mentioned previously. However, there are some ways you can use to pass on knowledge simply and effectively.

Simplify the concept:

Instead of saying to new staff that ‘Home Care Packages are for people with complex care needs,’ provide them with an avatar (example person) of what a Home Care Package consumer might look like. If need be, draw the person up along side pictures of the sort of services they might require.

Help the person ‘see’ the concept:

When we talk about ‘quality care’ in our services what do we mean? Let’s make it more concrete. What do we want it to mean?

Use a story – there is power in the narrative. Why do you think so many teachers have used parables to explain what they meant when they were explaining a concept? Instead of discussing the term ‘quality,’ think about how it might look. Tell the story of how someone provided quality care to a consumer, the steps they took in providing quality care, and what the consumer said about the care they received.

Scaffold off previous knowledge held by the person:

Think about breaking a concept down into smaller packages of information that the person can absorb. Once they understand one idea, you can build on this. For example, if you want a staff member to start writing up progress notes and this is a new task for them, you might start off by discussing a client’s issues with the staff member each day and (where relevant) stating ‘yes, that is something I will write up in their notes’. This helps the staff member to understand what information is relevant. This can then be followed up with having the staff member write down brief notes which you discuss and transcribe into the progress notes and eventually have the staff member writing directly into the progress notes. This method builds confidence and competence.

Conduct a Training Needs Analysis:

Many places use a training needs analysis to determine future training plans for their organisation. These can also be used to ascertain an individual’s understanding of certain key industry or company concepts. Where gaps are identified, use the ideas listed above to introduce and enhance understanding.

Don't forget this doesn't just relate to staff, but to other stakeholders as well.

Management also needs to be aware of the ‘curse of knowledge’ when preparing information for clients and other stakeholders. Too often we use industry or corporate jargon that confuses the consumer and their family. Again, keep it simple – provide examples or scenarios so that people can ‘see’ what you are talking about.

What ways do you use to communicate your knowledge to others? Let us know your ideas in the comments section below.

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