Being humble… you don’t have to know EVERYTHING!

Being humble… you don’t have to know EVERYTHING!
This blog was prompted by a comment made by one of our international Diploma students at the end of a two-day Behaviour Analysis workshop. As we were clearing up the training room, I noticed that they were smiling (clearly a genuine smile, and not socially obliged), and they approached me to make the following observation:

What I love about the training you give, is that you’re not afraid to say ‘we don’t know’. You don’t try to answer every question if you’re not sure. It’s great!

Now, as a professional trainer and a public speaker, I don’t make a conscious decision to be ignorant of scientific progress. On the contrary, we adapt and learn each day as new discoveries are made in various social science fields, updating our programmes and personal knowledge on topics. So, this comment gave me pause for thought.

As an educator and a behaviour analyst, I need to ensure that the students I teach have the confidence that I DO know what I’m talking about, and that I have both skills and credibility in my field. So why would a student think that ‘not knowing’ is a great thing?

On delving deeper in conversation with this particular student, they expanded on the comment. They explained that other training courses they’d attended on topics such as body language, presentation skills, lie detection, and emotional intelligence, had left them with a feeling of being ‘blagged’. They felt that the trainer, when asked a difficult question, just gave an impulse response or even a simple guess, but framed it as a ‘fact’.

So why would a speaker or trainer do this? After all, it’s a risk to their credibility if the ‘facts’ that they present later turn out to be unfounded and false.

But another question is, “Do they know they are doing it?”

As human beings, we can have inflated opinions of our knowledge, our abilities, and ourselves leading to some interesting self-deception and bias at times. Perhaps, in the example of a trainer giving a definite response to a question that later turns out to be incorrect, there’s a chance that they misunderstood or have misinterpreted the science, or maybe they have been misinformed by another authority figure (colleague, teacher, author, etc).

If we hear information repeated enough times, through the media, through education, or other channels, we have a tendency to believe the information to be true due to the illusory truth effect. Once a fact is believed to be ‘true’, we may then use a confirmation bias to find further evidence of this ‘truth’ (ignoring contradictory evidence). So in this case, they may be forgiven for providing the student with inaccurate information, however, we believe that it’s always worth getting back to the source of a belief or ‘fact’ to double check for these errors.

But what if the trainer doesn’t know the answer, but still intentionally gives an incorrect or misleading response to a question, purely to show that they ‘know everything on the subject’?

This is the point at which my forgiveness would waver… Knowingly misinforming a student, in the hope to maintain professional credibility, is an outright abuse of the position an educator of any kind holds. I understand the pressure of needing to ‘perform’ and meet the expectations of those that have invested time and money in attending a course, but educators have a moral duty to prevent the perpetuation of the myths and misinformation that is unfortunately rife in the field of behaviour analysis, and any other field for that matter.

At EIA, our stance is simple, and our position is clear. What does the science say?

Do all scientists agree? They certainly do not. And that’s great…

It gives us the opportunity to debate in the classroom.

Does science have the answers to everything? Again, no, it does not. That’s also great…

It makes the field we work in SO exciting, and ripe for discovery!

Every class I run, someone will undoubtedly ask a question I cannot answer, either because I’ve not read a specific piece of research OR because nobody knows… YET!

Each of these questions are an opportunity for all of us in the field of behaviour analysis to explore further, and with the help of our students, and their research (as well as our own), we’ll continue to learn more and more each day, month, and year.

Socrates, the classical Greek philosopher, explained that he felt he had wisdom because he understood that he knew very little, relative to what could be known about the world we live in.

I love that mindset… It keeps me motivated to learn more each day, and every course I teach I learn so much from the students. Their experience, their education, their personalities, and yes, their questions, inform the direction each training takes and this keeps me ‘on my toes’ and excited to learn. I need to be self-aware and confident in the science we teach, as well as the continued scientific process, and to acknowledge that there’s always more to learn.

To summarise…

Do I need to know everything? Thankfully, no I don’t, and I’m grateful to that student’s comment for reaffirming that’s OK.

So, a final question. What don’t you know today, that you WILL know tomorrow?

Happy Learning!


Aaron Garner


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