Heather Hansen

The Brady Bunch and the Curse of Knowledge

Here’s the story of the Curse of Knowledge….

Question–have you ever heard of the Curse of Knowledge? Before I learned about that Curse, the most I’d heard of curses was from the Brady Bunch. That show, about a man named Brady, a lovely lady, and how they somehow formed a family was must see viewing for me. There was a three part episode about a cursed Tiki doll that had me worried about curses for a long time. In that episode, the entire Brady Bunch clan, including the housekeeper Alice, went to Hawaii and Bobby found a tiki doll. He kept it, despite the legend that it was cursed and would bring bad luck. When Greg got in a surfing accident, Alice threw her hip out and Peter woke up with a tarantula in his bed, the boys concluded that clearly the curse was true! They then spent the rest of three episodes trying to break the curse.

That’s the first time I’d heard of a curse, and the entire idea made me anxious. Now the curse that scares me most is the Curse of Knowledge. If you’ve ever played Name that Tune, you’ve seen the Curse of Knowledge at work. The person humming the tune has the Curse of Knowledge. She knows the song she is humming, and it is very hard for her to imagine what it’s like not to have that knowledge. Elizabeth Stanton, a researcher at Stanford, showed that this is a consistent phenomenon. When you know something really well, it’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of people who don’t know that thing. I see this all the time with my clients in medicine and technology fields. They have their own language, and their own way of looking at the world. They tend to spend time with people who share that knowledge, and they run the risk of losing the ability to see that their clients or their patients don’t share that knowledge. In those situations, the curse of knowledge really can be a curse.

As a trial attorney, I’ve been surrounded by the Curse of Knowledge. Attorneys know their cases so well that they forget to explain the basics to the juries. I’ve actually read that when you say one word that a jury doesn’t understand, they don’t even hear the next 7 words you say. That’s the curse of knowledge at work. I’ve even seen medical malpractice cases where the curse of knowledge put lives in danger. If a patient and doctor don’t understand each other, the results can be deadly.

On that Brady Bunch episode, the Brady boys went to a cave to bury the tiki idol and break the curse. But in our lives, there’s a much easier way. The secret to breaking the Curse of Knowledge is …..QUESTIONS. When you ask questions of your clients, your patients, your customers and your loved ones, you will end the Curse of Knowledge forever.

All kind of questions can work. The idea is that when you have Curse of Knowledge, you’re spending all of your time in your own head and not thinking of others. Asking questions helps you to get into the minds of those you’re working with, and by doing so you’ve expanded your own understanding.

Here are the top 3 questions I’ve used to break the Curse of Knowledge:
1-”Do you understand?” This can be effective, but it’s not my favorite. While sometimes people are willing to admit they don’t understand, way too often they aren’t. We aren’t often vulnerable enough to say “I don’t understand” so use this question with caution.

2-”Does that make sense?” This puts the listener in a position of power. Now, if she doesn’t understand it’s because you don’t make sense and not because she is missing something. It works even better when the speaker says “I may have been confusing. Does that make sense?”
When the speaker is vulnerable enough to take on any blame for lack of connection, connection is more likely to happen.

3-”I know you must have questions, because I did. What questions do you have for me?” This is my favorite, because it opens up a conversation. It invites questions, and remember that questions are what breaks the curse of knowledge. The more questions, the faster and more effectively the curse is broken.

The next time you play Name that Tune, try to stump the listener with The Brady Bunch Theme. That might remind you of the Curse of Knowledge, and the importance of getting into the listener’s head. The next thing you know, the Curse might be broken.

Heather Hansen

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