Keep them guessing

This morning I attended Jabber, a local networking group in St Albans. And I came away with a completely unexpected insight about communication.

I worry constantly that when I tell people that I’m a creativity coach they immediately put me into a bunch of boxes, many or most of which aren’t quite right. The issue is, you see, both creativity and coaching are frequently misunderstood concepts.

Many people think that coaching means giving advice or guidance, being the expert in a given field. The truth is that traditional coaching is more about helping the client think and solve his or her own problems.

Creativity… well, I suppose it’s a good thing for me that so many people believe so many wrongheaded things about creativity otherwise I wouldn’t have a job. Here’s three:

  1. There are too many rules and regulations in my industry for me to be creative
  2. Creativity? You either have it or you don’t
  3. Creativity is art and stuff, right?

So when I call myself a creativity coach I fear that many people assume they know what that means but get it entirely wrong.

My response to this has been to attempt to make what I do more and more clear and, in fact, my coach of the term “creativity coach” was the end result of trying to find two words that were easy to understand. But what if I’ve been going about this all wrong?

Speaking to a couple of chaps at Jabber we got on to the problem of pigeonholing and how people are quick to try to stick you in a box and then, once they’ve done that, stop thinking about you. This is, as it happens, exactly the problem we face often when trying to express creativity; we have a desire to solve problems quickly and save mental energy. This kind of thinking is effortful and so we have a strong drive to want to simplify and categorise.

Perhaps, in using these plain English words, what I’m actually doing is reducing the cognitive load of my listeners at the expense of them failing to understand what I really do.

We know that when something is too simple, too easy to parse, people have a habit of not thinking about it at all and delegating it to their automatic systems. To stimulate recall, therefore, it actually helps to make something ever so slightly harder to parse. Simply printing something in a smaller font can increase recall in the reader.

All this is to say that perhaps I should be using a description, a title that is less apparently clear, that people will not assume they understand even if they don’t.

Maybe I should call myself a conceptual relationship manager or a solutionisation bridge builder. Or possibly an unseen value materialiser…

This may take a little more thought. But the point remains: perhaps in struggling to reduce the complexity of what we do into words that others will believe they understand we run the risk of miscommunication. It comes down to this question:

Is it better for someone to wrongly believe they understand or to correctly believe they don’t?

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