Knowing vs. Understanding

There are many levels of “knowing”. While we can “know” a fact by checking it on Google or Wikipedia, that’s different than having putting that fact into perspective – and that’s where understanding comes in. For example, a company reports its earnings; these are facts we to know. But whether they beat or missed analysts’ expectations often is the key to whether the stock goes up or down after the facts are reported. Knowing how the “street” will act based on the perspective is a form we call “understanding”.

Michael Patrick Lynch’s recent book, The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data, makes this and related points. Increasingly, mere information or data isn’t really knowledge; information can be better or worse, accurate or inaccurate.  When we want to “know”, we want true information that’s reliable. But to act on it, we need to “understand” it by grasping the bigger picture.

For knowledge to be useful, we need to understand the context. Think about a disease like Ebola. Knowing what its symptoms are enables you to identify it, but the goal is to understand WHY an Ebola breakout takes place and HOW to reduce its impact. Knowing that your friend is depressed means identifying WHAT the symptoms are; but to truly help him/her you need to understand WHY she/he so often is depressed.

Great coaches/mentors have to go beyond knowing what’s happening and understand both the As a parent, we try to limit our children’s screen time and encourage them to play outside, because interaction with other people brings an understanding of how and why things happen in a way that no online experience. Similarly, to coaching/mentoring leaders to be more effective means going beyond identifying the facts of an “event; it requires understanding the factors leading up to it, ways to address its implications, and enabling the leader to visualize the impact that his/her intervention will have on key players.

To “know yourself, as Socrates advocated, means going beyond knowing WHAT we are and extends to understanding WHY we do what we do. As teachers, coaches and mentors, we need to make sure, we’re advancing to the level of understanding, and enabling the people we’re working with to do the same.

What are your experiences with “knowing” vs. “understanding”?  Share with us!

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