Dan Erwin: Questioning

What Am I Missing?

I was a bit surprised in a recent conversation with my ophthalmologist that though she was a superb eye physician, she was utterly in the dark when it came to human behavior. We got off my discussion of some refraction issues—readily resolved—and onto the behavioral failures of highly educated business people. Her underlying assumption was that the behaviors shouldn’t have happened because these well-educated people should know better. AdobeStock_340904095

I commented that far more often than not, behavioral failures are out of ignorance, not laziness or intention. Boy, that didn’t go over well. I repeated the simple statement a couple more times, but it was obvious from her nonverbals that she absolutely was not accepting my conclusion. I thought about saying, “look, I’m the expert in behavior and you’re the expert in ophthalmology,” but realizing that she wasn’t ready to go that far, I stuffed it, just letting it soak in and knowing she’ll want to talk about it six months from now at my next appointment. So, I went back to the questions about my refraction.

What she was missing was a great deal of understanding not only about human behavior, but especially about the complexities making up simple behaviors like listening and questioning, much less the rich complexities of highly interactional business conversations and often highly interactional personal conversations. Her problem was not unusual: medical specialties like business specialties (think “silos”) create thick walls. And some issues of behavior never break through such walls. And like plenty of professionals, they naively think they understand talk and communication. Sheer nonsense!!

Many never give thought to what they’re missing, especially in their conclusions about human behavior, business or otherwise. In this instance as in many, she was missing a lot of facts about the business of human interaction. Most people simply talk and communicate based on what they learned from their family of origin and perhaps from a teacher or two. I had a required speech communication course (“sending and receiving”) in high school in 1950-51, but very few have had my educational experience, much less a quality trained teacher.  And if you’ll think about it, very few families ever talk about talk and communicating, or even have the expertise to engage thoughtfully and accurately.

The “what am I missing” question is quite different than the “what am I missing out of” question. That’s primarily a question about missed luxuries in life—missed experiences that others might have or be having. “What am I missing?” is a question about your thinking related to problem solving and decision making. It’s an attempt at gaining better data and/or better ideas in your processes.

But this question of “what’s missing?” is assuming a far more important and obvious role in technology, a role that openly costs billions of lost dollars for a company. Of course, I’m quite capable of also arguing that what’s missing in conversations can also cost billions, but let’s not go there.

So, as I reflected about the issue with my eye doctor, I thought not only about what we miss in behavioral interactions and knowledge, but how often we miss major issues in business thinking—especially in the cutting-edge world of algorithms. And about how often algorithmic failures have become front page issues.

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