In Part 1 of this series, I discussed a cognitive bias called the curse of knowledge. One of my primary goals was to establish its potentially negative impact on communication. For today’s post, I’ll be examining two strategies that can be used to mitigate that risk.
1. Establish Mutually Agreed-Upon Definitions
As an undergrad at the University of Texas, I used to attend a small weekly gathering devoted to pizza and philosophical pursuits. Over the years, the group’s conversations would inevitably return to one particular point: “Well, that depends. How do you define _____?” It’s an easy question to ask, but the answers are rarely straightforward. For me and my fellow students, the all-too-frequent conclusion was that some (if not all) of us understood the fundamental tenets of one another’s positions very differently.
Though my days of arguing semantics with pizza-fueled student philosophers have since passed, I continue to value that one (sometimes obnoxious) question—“How do YOU define it?” As requirements analysts, we are often expected to consume vast quantities of information that might or might not be familiar to us. Our success in those endeavors is contingent upon sharing a conceptual starting point with our team members. Since “sharing” necessarily involves language, collaborating with our colleagues to determine an agreed-upon set of domain-specific definitions is a particularly effective tool for counteracting the assumptions and presumptions characteristic of the curse of knowledge.
2. Interact Face-to-Face
The term “paralinguistic communication” refers to a variety of extra-linguistic cues that human beings both express and perceive during communicative interactions. These include things like prosody, intonation, facial expressions, and the conversational participants’ physical orientations in space. With the advent of technological innovations like e-mail, texting, and instant messaging, working and interacting remotely have become a new norm in many fields—requirements analysis included. Although this has created significant opportunities for growth and expansion, these tools for communication have stripped the paralinguistic cues from many of our interactions. I’m sure that many of us have had the unfortunate experience of dealing with miscommunications caused by purely textual dialogues. How many times have we had to question things like “What did that ellipsis really mean?” or “That e-mail was pretty terse. Is the sender displeased about something?”
Most of these ambiguities can be resolved by engaging in face-to-face interactions. Though we are arguably adapting to the challenges posed by textual communication, our default behavior is still to look for and respond to paralinguistic cues. Within the context of requirements analysis, interacting with our colleagues in person can provide us with useful information about perspectives, personalities, team morale, etc. Even if this type of involvement isn’t something that can happen consistently (due to prohibitive distances, for example), it’s worth undertaking when possible/realistic. In addition to supplementing our technical understanding of the projects we work on, each in-person interaction sets a precedent for the remote interactions that follow. This can facilitate positive working relationships while reducing the possibility of erroneous assumptions about (i) how we will be understood by others and (ii) how others intend for us to understand them.
In Part 3 of this series, I’ll examine two final strategies that can be used to overcome the curse of knowledge as an obstacle to successful communication. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share any personal experiences with these strategies in the comments!