I must admit I feel a little silly talking about this learning and development trick that I discovered in high school, yet I feel compelled to share this with you because I just put it to good use again yesterday, while at my corporate workplace—and I’m in my fifties now. This is one of those things that’s so simple, it should be obvious. And it is… after you’ve experienced the effect firsthand. Are you curious?
I promise you, I couldn’t make this complicated if I tried: If you want to test, or perhaps enhance, your own understanding of a given thing, try explaining it to somebody else. Not to yourself, not in your head, but out loud. Explain it to another human being, to that person’s satisfaction. Conversely, if you want to help a family member, friend, or associate work through the same process, encourage them to explain it to you. You might be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.
Let me tell you how it worked in high school. I had this chemistry class scheduled immediately after my lunch period. It so happens that a buddy of mine had the same class and the same lunch period as me. Every time we had a chemistry quiz or test scheduled, I would walk into the cafeteria and find this poor guy sitting with his nose buried in his chemistry textbook, sweating bullets. He would sit there, turning the same pages over and over and looking as if he were about to go before a firing squad. I could get acid indigestion just watching him. So I woul reach out.
“What’s wrong, Louie?”
“This chemistry shit, I just don’t get it.”
“What part don’t you understand?”
“Well, how about this…”
I assure you I wasn’t baiting my friend, but he always took that question as a challenge to show me the hard parts of any given chapter of that chemistry book. Louie would ask me about various theories, rules, and equations. I didn’t always know the answer, either, but I would look at what he was pointing at in the book, give the matter a little thought, think about how to explain it in terms I knew Louie would understand, and then explain it to him, exactly that way.
Louie would smile and nod. Then he’d turn the page and shoot back, “But what about this?” I would repeat the same process, over and again, until Louie was satisfied or until the bell rang, signaling everyone to get moving again.
That’s how I learned chemistry. I spent my entire lunch period explaining the most difficult parts of every chapter to my friend—without missing a bite, I might add—and then proceeded to ace every chemistry quiz and test that followed.
Did Louie benefit from our sessions? I hope so, but he would likely have been better off had he been the one doing all that talking.
Me? I thought I was just good at chemistry. Now I know better. Oh, had I known then what I know now! Right?
Yesterday I had finished developing a proposal for a potential new customer and while everything looked fine to me, I know that at times I can be my own worst proofreader. So I asked an associate to review my work. But rather than just email the documents and hope for the best, I opened them on a large display and asked my colleague to let me walk him through my steps.
In this particular case, the same process, more or less, yielded a different benefit. Neither of us was learning new concepts, yet by explaining the details of my work aloud to someone not directly involved, I was able to perceive my own work with the added dimension of unfamiliar eyes. And in the process, I saw things that I would not otherwise have seen.
“And this is where we define the duration of services. but I think there may be a better way to sync this up with Exhibit A…”
Synergy! Would my associates have seen that opportunity on their own? No more likely than I would have been, had I reviewed my own work in silence.
I can recall times long ago, when my own kids would be struggling with a subject in school. Sometimes it would help to let them talk in detail about the subject or the issue. They are adults now, as am I, and there are times when each of us may still benefit from the same approach.
This may be a rather wild analogy, but I was once told that in the Catholic rite of exorcism, a point is reached at which the exorcism may not proceed until the demon’s name is known. Then again, if you have ever been faced with the task of correcting an error hidden deep within a string of algebraic equations, or of finding that subtle flaw within many pages of a service agreement, perhaps the analogy isn’t so far-fetched after all.
Whether teaching ones self a new concept, perfecting ones approach to a potential new customer, or overcoming a stumbling block to better understanding, sometimes the key is to talk it out. Or to put his in ancient terms, if you can name it, you can conquer it.