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To improve learning - don't speak or write with conviction

Posted to Gurteen Knowledge-Log by David Gurteen on 23 June 2013



To improve learning - don't speak or write with conviction
WeblogGurteen Knowledge Log
Knowledge LetterAppears in the Gurteen Knowledge Letter issue: 156
Posted DateSunday 23 June 2013 16:16 GDT
Posted ByDavid Gurteen
Linkshttp://www.ellenlanger.com/books/2/the-power-of-mindful-lear ... 
http://www.nancydixonblog.com/2009/04/bringing-the-flow-of-k ... 
PeopleEllen J. Langer, Nancy Dixon

I came across this blog post by Nancy Dixon recently Bringing the Flow of Knowledge to a Standstill by Speaking with Conviction in which she says
One way of talking that inhibits the exchange of knowledge is speaking with conviction.

That may seem contrary to what we've all learned in communication and leadership workshops, where one of the lessons often taught is to speak with confidence- “sound like you mean it”.

Yet, as I examine conversations in the work setting, stating an idea with conviction tends to send a signal to others that the speaker is closed to new ideas.

When speaking with conviction people sound as though no other idea is possible, as though the answer is, or should be, obvious.

I agree with Nancy. I think even when we are totally convinced that what we believe is true, it serves no useful purpose to say it with great conviction other than to annoy people. If you wish to convince someone then you have got be open to being shown to be wrong or to discover that you are talking at cross-purposes.

Several people have told me over the years that when the see someone doing or saying something wrong that they just have to point it out to them in no uncertain terms - that they "have to learn".

Now this might make them feel good but in my experience and from what I can see from the behavioural research it does not work. It only serves to harden their opinions and increase their dislike of you. If you wish to convince someone then you have to be open to a two way conversation of equals.

Nancy's post also reminds me of the work of Ellen Langer and her book The Power of Mindful Learning. Ellen is a professor of psychology at Harvard University and her behavioural research challenges many myths about learning.
One of the pervading views in education is that in order to learn a skill one must practice until the action takes place without thought. Performing a skill over and over again so that it becomes second nature may lead to thoughtless or mindless interaction with the skill or concept. Mindlessness is a hindrance to discovery. Discovery often occurs because of a variance of the "basics".

Teaching in a conditional manner allows the learner to recognize that there may be varying situations that require a varied response. Teachers often eliminate factors that would lead students away from the "correct" outcome. We come to learn that events occur in a predictable manner and lose sight of some of the factors that contribute to the outcome. For example, physics students are instructed to neglect friction for most of the situations they deal with. This produces a discrepancy between actual and theoretical results and may dampen a students ability to see distinctions.

Research has shown that information presented conditionally versus in absolute form enhances the creativity of the students. In a study done by Alison Piper, groups of students were given information on a set of objects conditionally and in absolute form. The students that were given the information conditionally had a tendency to be more creative than the students that had the information presented in absolute form.

The standard approach to teaching new skills rely on either lecturing to instruct students or using direct experience to instruct students. Ellen Langer proposes a third approach which she calls "sideways learning". Sideways learning involves maintaining a mindful state that is characterized by openness to novelty, alertness to distinction, sensitivity to different contexts, awareness of multiple perspectives, and orientation in the present. The standard approach involves breaking down a task into discrete parts which may stifle novelty and alertness to distinction. Sideways learning makes it possible to create unlimited categories and distinctions. The distinctions are essential to mindfulness.

Langer asks and answers the question, "Can a text teach mindfully?" She gives examples of obscure tax code and the ability of students to apply the code to a variety of situations. Students that read the section of tax code in its original language had a more difficult time adjusting to situations that weren't spelled out in the code. The group of the students that studied the code that was slightly altered with "could be" and "possibly" instead of "is" were more successful in application.

So her research shows that writing with conviction also hinders learning

The lesson here is that contrary to popular belief if you wish people to learn from you than do not speak or write with conviction!

If you are interested in Knowledge Management, the Knowledge Café or the role of conversation in organizational life then you my be interested in this online book I am writing on Conversational Leadership
David Gurteen

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