How to stop the “curse of knowledge” from ambushing your communication

Here’s a story that has played out in every company:  a senior leader is announcing a new project, a process change, a cultural shift. 

It’s a decision made with context, a weighing of pros and cons.  They’ve been discussing it among their peers for weeks.   Whether it’s a change that they’re looking forward to or dreading, it feels inevitable to that leader.

At a town hall meeting, the leader is talking about the change.  Intellectually, they know that the audience is hearing about it for the first time – but emotionally, they forget.  We all do. It’s a cognitive bias called the curse of knowledge

The curse of knowledge is our inability to realize that other people don’t share our context, experience, or inner thoughts.   

Why do we need to work to combat the curse of knowledge?

The curse of knowledge stands between us and clear communication. We’re talking and our inner thoughts are playing back-up guitar, remembering foundational information and context and emotion that no one else hears. It’s why you often can’t recognize the song that someone else is humming: their brain is filling in the distinctive drum solo and yours is not.  It’s why it’s really hard to teach another person to drive. 

The curse of knowledge is not a lack of empathy.  It’s a default shortcut that our brains take. We can’t ‘fix’ that shortcut; we can plan for it.

When we don’t, we’re surprised by how our team or peers respond to that announcement. We thought people would be excited, or at least full of questions.   Instead, silence. As the zoom call ends or people file out of the meeting room, people share quiet side questions or complaints that they aren’t willing to ask out loud / type in the chat. 

They’re uncertain – missing the information that’s in our heads – and uncertainty prompts people to try and fill in the blanks on their own. And their lacking-in-context guesses are often more anxiety-inducing than your honest answers would be!

How can I lessen the impact of the curse of knowledge?

There are patterns in human-computer interaction (HCI) about what increases or decreases our abilities to interact with interfaces. 

Luckily, there are also patterns in how humans respond to change and uncertainty. Humans have mostly the same questions — whether their morale is high or low!  You can make everyone’s life better by anticipating them and providing as many of these answers as possible:

  • Why are we doing this?
  • Why can’t we keep doing what we’re already doing?
  • How much more work is this going to be for me?
  • Is this going to benefit me/my team in any way?
  • How will we know if this is working?
  • How is this going to be different from [some previous change that went terribly wrong]?
  • What are the tradeoffs we’re willing to make to get this done?

And also – it’s hard to try and answer any of these questions ad hoc. 

I’ve tried in the past and accidentally given unhelpful or too-vague responses. 

I’ve had far better results with saying, “I’d like to give that question the thoughtful answer it deserves instead of whatever is going to come out spontaneously.  I will get back to you.”

Using a “Start with Why” worksheet to be a better communicator

How do we answer these questions?  You can use this “start with why” worksheet to organize your thoughts. 

Some of these questions may halt you in your tracks because you don’t have a good answer.  That can feel very uncomfortable.  Pushing through that discomfort is what helps you build clarity and safety for your team or peers.

This worksheet format isn’t necessarily what you’ll share directly with your team (particularly not in a large-format meeting like a town hall).  Rather, it helps you organize your thoughts so that if you’re ambushed in a hallway/Slack channel with a direct question, you feel prepared to answer it thoughtfully.

Depending on the project and audience, I may rearrange these points, or save some for discussion and collaboration.  In particular, the “we’re going to try the experiment of” is usually something I’d like for my team to brainstorm and vote on.  “We’ll know we’re on the right track when…” – that’s a success metric, and writing good success metrics is a high-friction idea.  So sometimes I’d prefer for a team to jump in and start doing for an hour, day, or week before introducing that element.

How will I know if thinking through these questions is paying off?

For me, the sign is that your team and peers will ask more questions publicly.  You’ll see people more willing to make suggestions or identify risks.

In short – they’ll create more work for you!  And also, it’s exactly the kind of early invalidation and risk mitigation that is cheap when you handle it earlier, and very expensive when you make that mistake later.