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About explaining - Input Junkie
June 16th, 2010
03:04 pm

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About explaining
I've just realized that I believe a bunch of things about explaining and I'm not sure how many of them are true, so I'm tossing the matter to you guys.

I believe I'm fairly good at explaining, partly because I'm good at laying things out logically, but mostly because I'm actually able to believe that other people don't understand things just because I do. (Let me know if you think I'm kidding myself about this.)

I believe most people are fairly bad at explaining because they don't imagine not understanding the same things they understand.

I believe, on no strong evidence, that people who are bad at explaining would find it difficult to learn how to be good at explaining. In any case, I can't see how to explain the fundamental leap of really believing that people don't understand something-- they aren't just being perverse.

I realize there might be some contradictions between the second paragraph and the fourth.

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From:terriwells
Date:June 16th, 2010 07:14 pm (UTC)
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Well, from what you've said, being good at explaining something involves the ability to believe that the other person really doesn't understand. Is that absolutely necessary? Isn't it possible to assume the other person really does understand but is forcing you to explain it as clearly as possible?

I think there are other factors at work to make someone good at explaining things. You need to believe that the other person is CAPABLE of understanding. It helps to believe that the other person WANTS to understand. And as you hinted at, I think you need to be able to remember and go through the process you yourself went through in order to understand something.

As to whether people who are bad at explaining things would find it difficult to learn how to be good at explaining...I think that would depend on why they're bad at explaining things. One can certainly learn how to teach and improve one's ability to teach, and is this not a specialized form of explaining things?
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From:siderea
Date:June 16th, 2010 08:07 pm (UTC)
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Well, from what you've said, being good at explaining something involves the ability to believe that the other person really doesn't understand. Is that absolutely necessary? Isn't it possible to assume the other person really does understand but is forcing you to explain it as clearly as possible?

Yes, it is necessary, because even if one assumes the latter, the act of explaining requires modeling the absense of knowledge. The latter condition can be true, but doesn't get you anywhere different.
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From:terriwells
Date:June 16th, 2010 08:38 pm (UTC)
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Fair enough. I've seen what I described used as a teaching mechanism (for the person doing the explaining, mind you), probably all too often.
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From:dichroic
Date:June 16th, 2010 07:17 pm (UTC)
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1. The problem for me is about time: when I understanding something thoroughly, it takes some mental gyrations for me to remind myself that there was a time when I *didn't* understand it. I think I'm good at explaining, too, and the fact that I realize the above is one reason why. Even if I have to force myself to realize it, if I only learned something after I'd been in industry for a few years it's easier for me to realize at a gut level that there's no reason people just out of school should know it. It helps that I enjoy explaining stuff anyway.

2. I think for a lot of people, the challenge is when to *stop* explaining. Answering the question and only the question is a real skill. I can use rowing as an example. There's so much to learn and it's so different than anything most people have done before that if you give a novice rower too many things to think about they can't do any of them. You need to figure out what they most need to know, tell them one or two things, and then shut up until they've started to figure those out. In another realm work, I get very frustrated if I've asked someone a question with a simple answer (maybe even yes/no) and they spend 20 minutes explaining things I didn't really want or need to know.

(Hope I didn't just do that here!)
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From:richardthinks
Date:June 16th, 2010 11:34 pm (UTC)
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the challenge is when to *stop* explaining

as someone currently writing a PhD dissertation, this.
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From:nosebeepbear
Date:June 16th, 2010 07:19 pm (UTC)
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I'm usually fairly good at explaining, but sometimes...well, it's not that I don't believe people don't understand the things I understand, it's that I can't see which bit of understanding is missing. If I can follow someone's path of understanding and see where they take a different turn, I can usually walk them through to where I am. But sometimes I just can't figure out the disconnect.
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From:dcseain
Date:June 17th, 2010 03:25 am (UTC)
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Indeed. It is always fun to work with you to find the disconnect, though. :)
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From:andrewducker
Date:June 16th, 2010 07:45 pm (UTC)
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In order to explain something to someone you have to know what they already know, where the disconnect is between their current knowledge and the knowledge you want to impart, and the metaphor that will make most sense to them when constructing a bridge between their current location and the place you want to get them to.

When people lack that empathy they make terrible teachers.
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From:dcseain
Date:June 17th, 2010 03:25 am (UTC)
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This!
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From:kip_w
Date:June 16th, 2010 07:53 pm (UTC)
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I don't get it! What are you trying to say?

(kidding)
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From:sodyera
Date:June 16th, 2010 08:20 pm (UTC)
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I've learned that explanation is basically telling a story: This is what's going on, here's why it's unusual from the 99 other times this happened, or didn't happen. If you're lucky, the circumstance, person(s) or object(s) in question will generate a punch-line. I notice that you tend to be deliberate in your clarity, and that helps a lot, esp. for situations like math, which for me is literally a foreign language. However, I can see where some people might think you're talking down to them becuase you take so much care to be understood.
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From:richardthinks
Date:June 16th, 2010 11:37 pm (UTC)
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I'm in general terrible at explaining. I'm especially terrible at explaining anything to small children.

Douglas Adams said he liked programming as an exercise in logic because it was like talking to a very small and literal-minded child, having to be really clear about absolutely everything you wanted and didn't want. My guess is that he didn't spend a lot of time talking to children, because programs don't have to take frequent breaks to go jump up and down, and most of all computers don't remember things better when you turn them into dances.
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