The mental trap of knowing and understanding


“OK, I got it!”

As an experienced professional he knew exactly what to do. He walked out from the meeting feeling satisfied and happy. They had walked through the problem setting, explained why it emerged, and evaluated together few options how to solve it. He would have few weeks of time to design and implement the solution on his own. I am sure there were no open questions in his mind. Clearly he did not hesitate at all to proceed with the task. He understood it.

Some weeks later he presented the solution. The solution looked elegant and smooth, done nicely by the book. It was a clean job done by a professional. He presented it proudly to the group who had assigned the task for him.

Within seconds all the faces frowning. People looked at each other. Oh no. It was apparent that he had misunderstood the purpose of the task completely wrong. The solution he had spent weeks in designing looked great, but it solved a wrong problem. It was useless and it had to be done all over again. What a shame – let alone the time and energy wasted.

‘Understanding’ and ‘knowing’ are among the most severe mental traps. In the state of ‘knowing’ we feel satisfied. It is like complete puzzle with no pieces missing. We go around and ask questions until all the gaps are filled. If there are no pieces missing anymore then there is no reason to go searching!

To reach that state of satisfaction seems to be one of our basic internal needs. As we grow we build ourselves many mental thinking frameworks in order to understand the world. When one model is complete we no longer question it but accept it as the truth. The belief gets sometimes so strong that our automatic tendency is to ignore and resist any incoming new knowledge which challenges our complete belief framework.

In children we envy the endless curiosity. Somehow I hope that we could keep that spirit alive through our lives, but we seem to be more stuck with our beliefs the older and “wiser” we become. Seriously, in this complex world, how much do we really understand about anything? What do we really know about life? How many prejudices we have about our neighbor? When we start thinking about it most of mental models, if not all, must have serious flaws. Still we accept them as they are.

In order to keep learning throughout our lives we should be ever-curious to new incoming information and be always ready to update our thinking. A humble posture of learning equals avoidance of the state of satisfaction. One way to avoid the trap, to stay alert, and nurture the joy of curiosity is consultation. In Consultation you enter a conversation with a group of people where you actively listen the other views with respect and carefully share your own understanding. Through the consultative process collective understanding of the subject at hand is increased.

“To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.” –Socrates

The theme of the ebbf’s 25th annual conference is “unity and collaboration – stepping stones of prosperity-creating organizations” where elevation of collective thinking is studied more closely.

One comment

  1. […] appreciate this quote from Mika Korhonen. where she writes that knowing is one of the most pernicious of mental […]

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