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Some people love being right. They love it even more when everyone knows they’re right. In any given room, there’s almost always a portion of people who yearn to be the seen as the best. They want others to gasp at their superior intelligence or their years of hard-won acumen. These people can’t stand an incorrect statement to go uncorrected. So often, as they put you right, they’ll give you a torrent of erudition. You’ll get a much better answer than if you simply asked.
Of course, this does sound a lot like trolling. But it’s trolling of a multi-millennia vintage — the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, did a lot of it. Socrates would sit on some public bench and talk to whoever happened to sit next to him. He’d often open his dialogues by presenting a false or deeply flawed argument and go from there. He would ironically agree with whatever his partner would say, but then raise a seemingly innocuous question to challenge that position.
In the dialogue called “Meno,” Socrates explores the idea of virtue. Socrates goes along with what his friend, Meno, says, hoping that they’ll elicit some further revelation on their conversational journey. “Okay, so let’s say that virtue can be taught…” Socrates will say, and then, through clever questioning, will go on to reveal why that’s wrong. “Socratic irony” is where you pretend to be ignorant of something so you can get greater clarity about it. In short, it’s a lot like Cunningham’s Law.
If you’ve been to any “away day” professional training recently, or spent enough time around bureaucratic middle managers, you’ll have probably come across “coaching.” Coaching is, essentially, a catch-all term for any strategy by which you can draw out answers from someone.
Asking someone, “How do you think you could be better at your job?” will be met with blank stares. But if you ask, “What obstacles are stopping you from being great?” or “Who do you think is excellent at their job and how do they do it?” you’re more likely to get better answers.
Cunningham’s Law is an example of coaching. It’s a backdoor way of accessing knowledge when the front door is barred and shut. Here are two ways you can use Cunningham’s Law:
The Bad Option: Have you ever been in a group where no one can decide what decision to make, and so you hover about in an awkward, polite limbo? “What restaurant shall we go to?” gets nothing. Instead try saying, “Let’s go to McDonald’s” and see how others object and go on to offer other ideas.
The Coin Toss: If you’re unsure about any life decision — like “Should I read this book or that book next?” or “Should I leave my job or not?” — do a coin toss. Heads you do X, tails you do Y. You are not actually going to live by the coin’s decision, but you need to make a note of your reaction to whatever outcome came of it. Were you upset at what it landed on? Are you secretly relieved? It’s a good way to elicit your true thoughts on a topic.
Cunningham’s Law is a curious psychological phenomenon, and it’s one that can be used to great advantage. From getting detailed responses out of experts on the internet to illuminating some unconscious desire, sometimes feigning idiocy has its perks.
‘Tis sometimes the height of wisdom to feign stupidity.
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