Knowing vs. Understanding: Why Speaking Last is Smart

Most people want to advance in their careers. Most people want to be seen as competent, someone who can express both problems and answers. To do that, we need to be viewed as someone who is astute, knowledgeable, and aware of the options on the table and their consequences.

We know that critical thinking is a superpower when it comes to freedom and empowerment of thought. But, when we are in the middle of a multi-level, interdisciplinary committee meeting with people who have been tasked to come up with a profound solution and there are only 30 minutes before lunch, how do we appear insightful, perceptive and smart?

Speak last. That’s it; be the last person to jump into the conversation. Nelson Mandela admitted that he always spoke last at a gathering or a meeting. He would spend his time listening… and perhaps that is our other superpower. Listening, not just hearing. It worked for Mandela. Why wouldn’t it work for you?

To advance your line of thinking on the fly, realize that the thread which ties together all of our thinking skills is insight. Making a connection between two things is how we discover something that was hidden. Or maybe we gain understanding into a previously unexplored solution.

Ultimately, insight comes down to the difference between knowing and understanding. These words are often used interchangeably but the two concepts are more dissimilar than they first appear.

Knowing is a kind of passive holding in the mind. For instance, you may know the distance between your office and your child’s school, and you know eating vegetables is good for your health.

Understanding, on the other hand, is an active playing in the mind. When understanding, our mind is in motion with any number of actions, including combining, separating, digesting, digging, exploring, and more. This means that understanding is an application of what we know.

Understanding is not dictated by memory alone. For example, we may know the way home from work and, by some miracle, we can (gasp) go on autopilot to drive home after a tough day. But we understand when it’s OK to go on autopilot and when it isn’t. If the weather is bad or when traffic is a nightmare, we understand that we may need to leave earlier than normal if we want to arrive safely on time. This understanding comes from actively applying one concept – the time of day and weather – to another. Of course, this is a very simple example but it represents the basic form that all understandings take.

Try to make time to listen, despite how boring the meeting or how monotone the speaker. Be utterly indulgent and patient… and speak last. This will give you time to understand and apply what others are saying. By letting your mind actively play with the accumulation of thoughts and ideas, you will understand how to bring it all together. So that, when you do speak, you will do it with a greater understanding. And who knows where that will lead?

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