I originally wrote this post on Quora dated April 27, 2017.
In 1990, a psychology student at Stanford University, conducted an interesting experiment. It was referred to as the “Tappers & Listeners” experiment. The rest of the world first heard of it when the authors Chip and Dan Heath started talking about in public.
For her PhD dissertation, Elizabeth Newton invited her peers in college to participate in the study. Each student was assigned one of two roles: ‘Tapper’ or ‘Listener’. The tappers were given a list of twenty-five popular tunes, such as “Happy Birthday to you” and “Jingle Bells”. They had to tap out the tune with their fingers on a table, and the listeners had to guess the song. As you might have guessed, this was not an easy task at all. Of the hundred and twenty times a tune was tapped, the listener could guess the tune correctly only thrice. That’s a success rate of about 2.5%.
But here’s the interesting bit. Before the tappers began to tap the tune, Elizabeth asked them to predict the probability of the listeners being able to guess the song correctly. The tappers predicted a 50% chance that they would be able to get the listeners to guess the tune correctly.
So while they thought that they would be able to get the listeners to guess correctly one out of two times, the reality was that listeners could guess the tune only once in forty attempts. How come?
Well, here’s what was happening. As the tapper taps the tune, he can hear the song playing in his head His fingers seem to be tapping the tune in perfect sync with what’s playing in his head. And he just can’t understand what the listener is not able to pick up such a simple tune!
And what about the listener? Well, she doesn’t have the tune playing in her head, without which, she has no idea what’s happening. She tries as hard as can to make sense of the bizarre Morse-code like tapping that she hears. Alas, to no avail. This results in utter frustration.
As leaders, we often fall into the tapper’s trap! We give instructions which seem very clear in our heads but our colleagues may have no idea what we want them to do. Has it happened to you that you called a young trainee to do some work, and when she got back the next day – having slogged all night to finish the task – you were disappointed? She hadn’t quite done what you were looking for. You probably felt a bit frustrated too, that she ‘didn’t quiet get it.’
The next time that happens, do remember that the problem is with the tapper – not the listener. Because you knew what you wanted to get done, you assumed it was clear to the young trainee too. That is seldom the case.
The next time you are communicating with a colleague, think about the “Tappers & Listeners” experiment. And remember, what’s obvious to you may not be so to the other person. When the listener says he doesn’t get it, that’s not a signal to get irritated. It’s probably telling you to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and try and be more explicit. Don’t assume that knowledge levels are the same.
One more thing. Tapping harder or Tapping repeatedly won’t make it any easier for the Listener!