By Peter Lyle DeHaan , PhD
Too many people have a self-centered, protective attitude about knowledge. They want to receive information but are guarded, paranoid, or even disingenuous about sharing it. This is shortsighted; it is truly better to give than to receive. In this regard, I’ve developed a principle to guide me. I called it, Peter’s Law of Reciprocity, which states: “Everyone you meet knows something you don’t, so politely and tactfully learn what it is. Conversely, everyone you meet doesn’t know everything you do, so be willing to graciously share whatever you can when asked.”
Over the years, this principle has served me well. When I have chosen only to receive information, my closed mental attitude effectively limited what I could receive. On the other extreme, when I opted to only share information, I grew to believe that people wanted and needed what I had to offer. This was a patronizing attitude that I hope to never repeat.
When seeking information, exercise discretion in what you ask. Certainly, some things are off-limits. Personal information (compensation comes to mind), trade secrets, and strategic plans are prime examples. Also, it’s critical to be genuinely interested in what you ask. Insincere and devious queries serve to short-circuit the uninhibited exchange of information. Quite simply, if you don’t care about the answer, don’t ask the question.
When you ask others for their opinions and ideas, it’s acceptable to take notes; don’t rely on your memory. If you’re like me, you already have too much to remember. Some people assume that taking notes is rude to the person you are talking to; this is not so. Making notes affirms the speaker and their message. Note-taking conveys that their message is noteworthy; you demonstrate respect by writing it down.
Likewise, there are guiding principles when sharing information. First, be careful not to betray a confidence or divulge a secret. It’s critical to use discretion and common sense to protect and respect the privacy of others—if you don’t, people will stop talking to you. It’s also important to not offer unsolicited advice. The only outcomes of giving unwanted counsel are people ignoring you or viewing you as arrogant. Lastly, it’s critical to not talk down to your inquirer but instead, treat him or her as an equal.
It’s human nature to talk to those we know. This implies we will seek information from and share knowledge with our friends. There is nothing wrong with this, except that after a time, ideas—even bad ideas—are recycled and then affirmed. When repeated often enough, people eventually accept it as fact, even if there’s no reason to do so. I call this intellectual incest, provocative, yet apt description of what happens with continually recirculated information among a small group of closely connected people. Certainly, we should talk with our friends, but we need to be aware of blindly accepting what they say without carefully considering its merits.
More valuable than interacting with our friends and acquaintances is interacting with those we don’t know. These are the people most likely to share something fresh or innovative. This, however, is also much easier to suggest than do. Nevertheless, most of my “aha!” moments have happened when talking with someone I just met.
If the goal is to learn and grow, then even more limiting than focusing our interactions on our friends is to restrict our attention to those we are with it, family or coworkers. Although this is safe and natural, it prevents us from being exposed to new thoughts and diverging viewpoints.
When I have traveled with coworkers, I often set prearranged limits on how much time we spent together in order to make it easier to interact with others outside our company. Yes, we plan strategic times to reconvene and share what we learned, as well as to just relax in each other’s company, but for the most part, we intentionally split up, sitting with, eating with, and meeting with others in order to maximize our exposure to new ideas and different perspectives. As it is much easier to connect with someone by him or herself versus when they’re part of a group, this makes me more available and approachable when someone wants to talk.
Though it’s often uncomfortable to talk to a stranger or ask a question, that’s when I receive the greatest reward. Similarly, it’s when I freely share information that I unexpectedly receive the most benefit. Both instances lead to greater understanding and enhanced perspectives, which is what interacting with others is all about—a mutual exchange of ideas and insights.