What aren’t you being told?
In complex problems and everyday conversations important information is often withheld. The key is finding out what you aren't being told so you can work with a full set of information.
For example, psychology textbooks often mention the nine dot problem. In the problem, people are given a three-by-three grid of dots and are told to connect all of the dots with four lines without lifting the pen.
It's difficult to solve this puzzle the first time you see it. The answer requires extending the lines beyond the frame defined by the grid of dots. Once you have seen the problem, though, it is easy to solve it again and also to solve related problems that involve extending boundaries.
A lot of the trick to this puzzle is about communication. You ordinarily bring a particular frame of mind to solving a problem. If you are supposed to do something beyond the ordinary, then you expect to be told that.
In other words, what makes the puzzle difficult is that there is something you are not being told that is important to know. The puzzle-maker is holding back information in order to make the situation more challenging.
This type of omission happens all the time. We know that it is unethical to tell a lie, but there is a gray area in our beliefs about glossing over important details. Misleading someone by leaving out key information feels less ethically compromised (and is often less likely to be punished legally) than lying overtly.
That means that you need to get better at recognizing when people are not telling you something that is important to know. Here are a few things you can do to be better at detecting what is not being said.
Just as you develop a sense of the range of solutions for problems, you also develop an understanding of the parameters of conversations with people in business. You begin to recognize what information you should be getting and when it should be offered.
However, you need to get yourself prepared for a conversation. Otherwise, you can get caught up in the details of what is being said at the moment, and not focus on the information you want to get.
So, start by thinking about the people you will be talking to. What are their motives? What information are they likely to want to hide? Be prepared in advance to guide the conversation in directions that get you what you need.
In the heat of a conversation, it can be hard to remember to get all of the information you need. Sit down with your team and other experts in an area and get a list of all of the questions you need answered and issues you need discussed. Keep good notes throughout the conversation and make sure that you touch on all of the issues.
Taking notes during a conversation can slow things down, but it is hard to recreate the context later. The list ensures that you do not miss key elements that might be difficult or impossible to find out about in the future.
One reason why you often fail to recognize information you are not being given is that you tend to interpret the information you do get in ways that fit with your current preferences. In order to help guard against this problem, bring someone (who doesn't have a vested interest in the outcome) along with you to key discussions.
Listen to what that objective third person has to say. Your colleague may feel like a buzzkill, throwing cold water on something you are enthusiastic about. Don’t make it hard for them to express their opinions to you.
Finally, remember that people omit information, because they feel these omissions are less of an ethical problem than an outright lie. But it may be easier to get the information than you think. At the end of a potentially difficult conversation, ask the other person whether there is anything they have left out or anything that you really need to know.
That simple question makes it harder for people to maintain that they simply omitted information.
[Image: Flickr user erix!]