Knowing Isn’t Enough – The 4 Steps Between Knowledge and Action

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Kelly McGonigal recently tweeted about a British Psychological Society post in which psychologists talk about things they still don’t understand about themselves. It’s really interesting reading, but the particular thing that I connected with was University of Texas psychologist David Buss saying “One nagging thing that I still don’t understand about myself is why I often succumb to well-documented psychological biases, even though I’m acutely aware of these biases … One would think that explicit knowledge of these well-documented psychological biases and years of experience with them would allow a person to cognitively override the biases. But they don’t.”

I know why Buss sometimes fails to act according to things he knows perfectly well, and yet I do the same thing myself, for instance a couple of weeks ago when I had a serious communication breakdown that I later saw wouldn’t have been a problem if I’d  used all of the communication skills I’d been learning for years (see Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High or Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life). Actually, that’s the whole point of this post: just knowing something about how our minds work is not the same thing as using that knowledge.

So what’s the gap between knowing and doing? There are actually fourgaps. Lucky for us, none of them is very wide.

1. Noticing opportunities to use the knowledge
The first step is a kind of mindfulness: in order to use, say, a communication skill, I need to be thinking about my communication as I’m doing it so that I can notice, “Hey, here’s a great opportunity to summarize my friend’s concerns!” Mindfulness can be improved with tools like meditation, feedback loops, and decision logging.

2. Understanding how to apply the knowledge
It’s good for me to know that I should try to summarize a person’s concerns back to them, but I need to know more than that abstract idea: I need to know how I go about it, perhaps having a step-by-step method I can use to apply the information I have, or some test I can use on my intended behavior to see if it would fit the information.

3. Surrendering objections
By definition habits are hard to change, and if you’re trying to act a different way, you’re trying to change a habit. Changing habits usually means giving something up, for example pride, less-than-ideal strategies you’ve been using for years, or defensiveness. In my case, if I want to make sure the person I’m talking to knows they’ve been heard and understood, I have to give up the impulse to do a critique of what they just said and instead be willing to understand first, react second. People are much more comfortable hearing someone else’s ideas when they know for sure that their own ideas have already made it across.

4. Making the effort
Putting a piece of knowledge into play requires conscious effort: there’s usually nothing automatic about it. Effort means a decision to devote at least a little bit of time and attention at the right moments to using the knowledge.

In an article on learning and the brain, I talk about how acting on knowledge helps us learn it better. For this article or any piece of knowledge you gain that might be useful, it can make all the difference to use it as soon as possible, several times, both in order to get used to the specific skill and to fix it in your brain. If we don’t go out of our way to bridge the four gaps between information and action–noticing opportunities, understanding how, surrendering objections, and making the effort–then the knowledge isn’t any more useful in our heads than it is left on the page, unread.

Author: Luc Reid



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"Don't let what other people think stop you from doing what you love." – Hitler