Have you ever found yourself explaining something which you find incredibly simple, yet the listener is just could not get the message? Perhaps you were giving directions to a restaurant in a city you know extremely well.
Wasn’t it frustrating when they just didn’t seem to understand what you were talking about?
How could they not get it, it’s so easy?
You would not be the first person to have experienced this problem. In fact, we’ve all fallen prey to the “curse of knowledge”.
What is this curse you ask? Let me explain it with a little study.
In 1990, Stanford University graduate student Elizabeth Newton organized a study in which participants played a simple game with two roles. Each participant was either a “tapper” or a “listener”. The tappers were asked to pick a well-known song like “Happy Birthday” and told to tap out the rhythm on the table. The only job the listener had was to guess the song being tapped.
What do you think happened?
In 120 separate attempts, the listeners were only able to correctly guess the song 3 times. And for anyone who has ever endured listening to someone who can’t carry a tune, this isn’t all that surprising. But here’s the funny part, before the listeners made their guess, they asked the tappers to predict the likelihood of the listener correctly identifying the song. Believe it or not, the tappers figured there was a 50% chance they would get it right!
How could they be so wrong? Why did they think it would be 50% when it turned out to be just 2.5%?
The problem lies in the fact that once we know something, we find it hard to live in a world where we no longer have that knowledge. Our knowledge has now become “cursed” and it will never be the same again. We struggle to relate and see things from that person’s point of view because it’s not easy to recreate the state of mind.
In the sports world, we see this problem play out all the time. Certain coaches struggle to teach beginners because they can’t remember what it’s like to know nothing. Rivals will hate each other, even though they have way more in common than they think. And teammates will develop distrust between each other because they don’t know how to relate to one another.
These are all prevalent problems, but unfortunately, they cannot all be fixed. Bad coaches will always exist and there isn’t a whole lot you can do about rivalries. But teammates who cannot relate or trust one another is a major problem.
And at the heart of this issue, lies one very simple emotional skill.
The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
For many athletes out there, especially the more talented players, it can be difficult to work with teammates that aren’t quite as good. On the flipside, it can be challenging to be a “bench player” who is on the outside looking in. They both people lack knowledge, experience, and perspective that the other possesses.
And because of this, they often begin to make assumptions about each other.
“Billy on the Bench” sees “Jimmy the Stud” who is confident and mistakes that for arrogance. Meanwhile, Jimmy sees Billy making the same errors over and over which makes him think he’s is just not very athletic. In the end, they have both made assumptions which only end up limiting their productivity as teammates.
This is all due to a lack of empathy. Neither athlete is willing to see things from the other person’s perspective and therefore they make judgments and toss out assumptions that have very little merit.
Thus, they leave no room for relationship improvement and Jimmy will always see Billy as unathletic, while Billy continues to think Jimmy is just an arrogant prick. Neither one of them is taking the time to see things from another person’s point of view and actually understand what they are going through.
IF they did, each of them would be able to see what’s really going on.
Jimmy would see that Billy is working really hard and wants to improve, but he never had the early coaching that Jimmy was privileged to. Meanwhile, Billy would recognize that Jimmy has big goals and wants to be on the national team, so he feels that if he wants to have any chance of doing that, he needs to be a confident player on the court.
Now, will these players have their faults? Yes, of course.
They will make a lot of stupid errors or get a little too cocky at times, but if Billy and Jimmy choose to adjust the filter in which they view each other, they will begin to see certain actions from a different perspective. They will begin to see the person through their original intentions, not some “cursed” idea of what they think the person is acting like.
Can you think of any teammates you currently lack empathy for? What biased assumptions are you making about those around you? Are you cursed by knowledge?
Are you Empathetic?
If you’re wondering whether you’re an empathetic person, here’s a quick test:
Without thinking about it, draw an upper case “q” on your forehead.
Did you do it?
Now tell me, which way did you draw the dash in the ‘Q’? Did it go to the right or the left?
If you drew the Q so that you could read it (to your right), this means you tend to view the world more through your own filter. If you wrote it so others could read the Q (to the left), this means you think more about how other people see you. You are more understanding of their perspective.
Now does this mean you are a terrible person with zero empathy for those around you? Definitely not.
But it does teach us a valuable lesson about how often we think and see the world around us. In most situations, we only look at what is immediately in front of us or what is present in our thoughts. We don’t take the perspective of those around us and we very rarely consider the validity of the opinions of others.
I’m not saying you are wrong or that we should never trust our own intuitions. I’m simply saying that sometimes it’s valuable to think about what it feels like to be on the other side.