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Better Listening Skills Now

The Wisdom of the Dumb


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		  The Wisdom of the Dumb   

 Why is it that so many persons feel compelled to show off how much they know?   

Because they have been rewarded during a dozen school years for wagging their hands to provide the right answer?  Because our society is individualistic and competitive such that the brightest climb higher on the success ladder?  Because winning an argument is emotionally gratifying?  Certainly, there are many good times to assertively advance your best ideas, to show what you know, to demonstrate your grasp of the subject at hand. However, not all times are good times. There are also good conversational opportunities to be “dumb,” opportunities to be just plain curious about the ideas of others – no matter how apparently naïve you think those ideas are.   

 An example from corporate America :   

Management has regularly trumpeted the need to “think outside of the box” and consider fresh, even quirky, ideas. To make this happen, meetings sometimes make use of outside facilitators who can create safe opportunities for participants to suggest unusual ideas (the best-known of which is “brainstorming,” one of dozens of useful frameworks for innovation.)  Without such conditions of safety and creativity, the NIH (“Not Invented Here”) syndrome tends to rule and thus eliminate contrarian or unusual thinking. In a climate that has become arrogant, where “inside the box ideas” are assumed to be the right ones and the best ones, employees quickly learn that in order to get along, they had better go along – with the prevailing thinking.     

A key problem that emerges from the stance of always having to know (and never being dumb) is the tendency to look only for weaknesses in an organization – whether a corporate giant or a small family group and to maintain a way of managing known as “deficit based change.” This orthodox type of thinking believes that “if we can identify and eliminate the problems, all will be well.”     

In the past decade, significant numbers of organizations have begun instead to use the process of Appreciative Inquiry (AI), which allows them to harvest from their people the ideas of what is actually working, some of which never come to light unless asked for in a climate of safety, trust, and appreciation. AI has demonstrated that it can be not only a harvester of good and workable ideas, but also a tremendous morale-builder that can engage hundreds – even thousands – of participants on a one-to-one basis of positive and sensitive inquiry that asks “What has been working best?” The process assumes that the best ideas are stored in the imaginations and tacit knowing of an organization's workers, and that being curious about what those are will bring them out.     

Those of us over thirty remember how deftly dumb was TV Detective Columbo, who off-handedly asked “dumb” and disarming questions that often led to the solution of a crime.     

And any of us remember the satisfaction we got as children when we were listened to with deep curiosity as we shared our ideas and experience without being corrected and improved by someone older who supposedly had all the right answers. Some of this same satisfaction is available to the employee whose boss asks, “Please tell me what you think is working best.”     

During conversations, there are good times to know, and there are good times to be dumb. Alas, many otherwise smart people don't recognize the difference. Often, they suffer from an occupational hazard of know-it-all – as teachers, ministers, professors, lawyers, consultants and other advice-givers are prone to. Too often in the past, I myself did not recognize the value of “not knowing” and the beneficial results that can come from talking to others with a mind that is merely open and curious. I wish for you that you have come to understand and appreciate this matter faster than I.     

Therefore: Be as capable of openness and curiosity as you are or being able to demonstrate your knowledge. In the game of conversation, winning is not the only thing.    


Loren Ekroth ©2012, All rights reserved.

Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life.

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