Specifics: more general than generalities

April 11, 2014 by Joshua
in Awareness, Education

The moderator at my recent group talks at NYU-Stern and Harvard started the question-and-answer period with an instruction to the audience I hadn’t heard before. I found it tremendously effective at making the questions useful and poignant.

He asked that everyone ask only personal questions from their lives, not to ask about general points.

Did you also first think, “Wait, if people only ask about personal issues to themselves, won’t they not matter to everyone else in the room? Don’t we want to learn general principles that apply to everyone?”? I thought so too, but I saw that the instruction had the opposite effect.

What was the effect? First, most people had trouble with the instruction. If someone asked something like “What’s the best way to decide between two options,” he would remind the person asking of the instruction and suggest asking about a specific time they faced such a dilemma. Some people couldn’t reformulate their questions. Most could, which led to the second effect.

Second, when people made the questions personal, I found

  1. I cared a lot more about the question and answer
  2. I could apply the answer to my life better
  3. I felt less inclined to argue against the point
  4. I learned more

Based on that experience, I plan to give similar instructions before question and answer sessions myself. By the measures I can think of, specifics help you learn better.

I think this lesson connects with the instruction “show, don’t tell.” We seem to learn from experience more than studying or people telling us stuff.

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