How To Help Someone Find Insight
Helping someone find insight, as I describe it, is different from providing encouragement or offering advice.
Which isn’t to say that advice or encouragement may not be useful! The help someone may need may often be encouragement or advice… instead of insight. Or in addition to insight.
Insight is one tool in the toolbox of being able to help people.
In the way I use the term, insight is helping someone update their mental model.
Someone, for example, may have already gotten advice that would be useful to them… but they didn’t recognize it as being useful to them, in their situation.
Or, they weren’t able to select it from competing advice that sounded good, but wasn’t actually useful to them.
At this point more advice may not be helpful. The issue isn’t a lack of advice, but being able to select among advice.
A key insight about insight is that people construct mental models automatically.
You don’t need to provide someone with a mental model to create insight.
You merely need to help someone see where their current mental model isn’t fitting with reality.
This is the “Aha!” moment. “Oh! I see it now!”
After someone finds insight, then you may be able to help them construct a new mental model with advice, expertise, teaching, and so on.
Or, they may go find expertise from someone else… such as perhaps someone who is more of an expert in this particular area than you are.
Or, they may already have the information they need, and insight by itself is enough.
The way to help people find insight is to ask questions to construct your own mental model of the situation.
There are other questions you can ask, such as questions which encourage someone to take a better path (“Don’t you think you should stop mooching off your friends?”); or questions which provide expertise or a solution in the form of a question (“Why don’t you get a job?”).
The way to tell whether you’re asking a question to help you form your mental model of the situation (an “insightful” question) is whether you genuinely don’t know the answer. If you’re asking to gain information.
People suggest asking open questions instead of yes/no questions and that can help gather information faster, but there’s nothing wrong with yes/no questions if they genuinely seek information.
For example, I may ask, “Is this the most important thing for you?” if I’m genuinely wondering if this is what’s most important for someone or not. It’s a yes/no question, but that’s fine.
If you’re going to follow up insight with advice or encouragement then forming your own mental model of the situation can naturally be useful to help you see how to be encouraging or for what advice to give.
However, just to help someone find insight you don’t need to use the mental model you’ve constructed for anything.
It can be like scaffolding. You construct it for the task at hand and then you throw it away
What happens is that as you ask questions and form your mental model of the situation, you’ll notice something that doesn’t quite fit. That you’re confused about. That’s incongruent. That’s inconsistent with what you know about the world or their situation.
You’re closing in on insight.
The temptation at this point is to be helpful by pointing out where they’re wrong, or to jump ahead to the solution.
This can work, but it’s needlessly risky.
If you’re right that can be OK, but if you’re wrong they need to backtrack and correct your false assumptions.
The trick is to close in on the insight by continuing to ask questions to get your mental model into alignment.
For example, someone might say something that conflicts with what I know about the world, that is to say, they say something that I believe to be factually incorrect.
To what level of probability?
90%? 99%? 99.9%? 99.99%?
There’s still a chance, perhaps very small, that there’s something I don’t know.
I might ask something like, “How is this compatible (or consistent) with such-and-such?”
If it isn’t, now they’ve learned something, and if it is, now I’ve learned something
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