Tacit Knowledge

[The following was a conversation on tacit knowledge shared between myself and two colleagues. We were discussing the properties and uses of tacit knowledge, and whether or not it’s something that can be verbally passed on. The initials “C1” and “C2” represent my colleagues’ comments. The initial, “K”, represents my comments.]

C1: It seems to me that the limitation of tacit knowledge is that it stays with you, can’t be passed on. No question that it’s valuable; just not valuable to students who want to learn from you. I try to keep in mind that what is tacit but not articulate cannot be reflected upon – we must articulate something in order to reflect upon it. An additional level of “knowing” that I think teachers (good ones, anyhow) have to push for within themselves.

K: Yes, totally agree. Actually, I like to think I’m better than average at showing others how to get in touch with their own tacit knowledge. I can explain it, and I’m happy to explain, but it’s often a much slower, less buzzier process than other ways of passing along knowledge, and many intellectual types who are predominantly comfortable falling on the “see it, touch it, smell it–it exists” side usually don’t have the patience, as you point out. Especially when facts are just so darn satisfyingly and quickly verifiable.

C1: This is different, of course, from “logical analysis” – a lot of what is felt in one’s “bones” is not a matter of logic but a knowing that goes much deeper. And, let’s face it, that stuff usually sends the intellectuals screaming anyhow.

K: I love mind knowledge, but it’s often like candy to me. Nice quick rush. But it’s not until it sinks into the body knowledge that it sustains. And then, with enough experience and paying attention, it can finally sink into tacit knowledge. Yes, “knowing” that goes much deeper. That’s always what interests me.

Sending intellectuals screaming? One of my favorite pastimes… Except for those times, of course, when I’m trying to impersonate one.

C1: Don’t you think that knowledge can also begin as tacit knowledge which is then articulated?

K: Yes. I think tacit knowledge more often does originate in the body — that kind of intuitive, deep knowing that often (though not always) appears to be spontaneous. “I need to know, so I do” — it’s often that fast. Then, of course, we get slowed back down trying to find words to explain the knowing. But tacit knowledge can be acquired in reverse — meaning starting with intellectual knowledge and moving it down into the body through years of experience, observation, and practice — but it’s a slow boat to China. I also find that once one has or begins acquiring tacit knowledge, it makes gaining other tacit knowledge much easier.

C1: My experience is that the stuff that makes someone great at what they do – cooking, riding, training, writing, carving, shrinking heads, whatever – is often built in tacit knowledge, particularly if formal education hasn’t been the starting point for the knowledge. Long before I could ever articulate to another human being how I do what I do, I could do it with an animal. When I found the “mind knowledge” candy of jargon and technical applications, I was all excited at first, and then mightily annoyed to find out that cool sounding things like fading cues or extinguishing behaviors or raising criteria – so annoying to discover that I’d long known how to do that, just didn’t know that it had a name or an explanation.

K: Sure, innate gifts are a kind of tacit knowing. And unless a person has a need to verbally communicate that knowing, there is no message being sent to the body to send up a bunch of words to the brain to attach to that knowing. It gets to stay amorphous (often not even fully understood or explored by the individual) because they’ve been able to take it for granted and haven’t had to learn how or why it works, because it just works reliably for them — it’s there when they need it to be there. And, personally, I think some people get superstitious about it. Like if they look at it or question it too deeply, it might go away. Then there are those who might feel that if they could explain it, it would take away the mysterious, mystical qualities, and therefore they might wind up feeling less special (for those who need to feel special). Being the mad scientist that I am, I have the opposite problems.

C1: I think mind knowledge as a starting point is dangerous, and getting it to sink into deeply-known-in-your-bones knowledge is the trick.

K: Because of how our culture is, I find most people freak out a little if you don’t start out with them on the mind knowledge level first. That’s a comfortable space-boundary thing, I think. Doesn’t matter that I can usually pick up a ton about someone within a few minutes — if that’s where I started with them it would shock the pants off them and shut them down pretty quickly in self-defense. Like you, the easy part for me is figuring out where I need to get someone to go. The time consuming part is to present it to them slowly enough, and through each layer of knowledge and learning (mental, emotional, body), so that they can really take it in and make it theirs. Granted, there are those people who like the fast, direct, give-it-to-me-right-between-the-eyes approach, and are happy to have you lay it on them, niceties not included. But they’re not the norm. With most humans, slow and steady wins the race–usually starting with some kind of mind knowledge — even if it’s just explaining the steps of something first before you show them.

C1: But I’m talking about knowledge that begins as tacit, and then — if you are to teach it or even just be able to reflect on it — must be articulated. When folks say, “I don’t know — I just do it” I don’t doubt them, but I also know it may be very difficult to learn from them except through my own observations and attempts to model them very precisely, because they really don’t know what they know or how they know it.

K: Innate knowing, or intuition, is a funny thing. Some people are just born with it. Let me correct myself — all people are born with it. Most of us get it shut down to varying degrees of “off” pretty early on. How does that happen? Well, for instance, as soon as we begin taking on language — let’s use the word “tree” which is a language symbol for the image symbol for the thing itself — we are instantly thrice removed from pure reality. A lot gets lost in the translation! And that’s just the beginning of our removal from reality, and our ability to just know.

So, what makes some people able to hold on to their knowing? Glad you asked. From what I’ve observed, there are three conditions (there are more, but I’ll stick with three here) that keep some open.

  1. that kid retains an insatiable wonder (develops into lifelong curiosity).
  2. that kid has some kind of worry or fear in their environment that forces them to pay attention as though their life depends on it (develops an amazing attention span and observation skills to easily take in what others miss).
  3. that kid spends a lot of time alone and in nature (they’ve figured out a way to stay connected to reality with a capital R).

Sound familiar? Even though just one of those qualities is enough to keep someone open, the exceptional ones usually have at least two of those conditions present, and typically all three.

To get someone to begin opening back up to their own innate knowing is pretty easy. All I need to do is help them loosen up their skeptical mind even just a tiny bit, find out where their innate knowing has been least shut off, and start working with them from there.

C2: I would say I have all three of your conditions met in spades. I, however, do not have much in the way of intuition. I would be interested in hearing how you begin the process of opening up an individual’s innate knowing back up and how you know where it was shut off.

K: Intuition can be a loaded word. Many associate it with some kind of precognitive knowing, etc, which it can certainly encompass. My definition of intuition is simply a spontaneous knowing of something that one has no conscious way of knowing, regardless of the form it takes. It is one kind of tacit knowledge that can appear different from other kinds in that its sustainability can fluctuate wildly. I believe most intuition for most people functions as a form of latent survival instinct–a hit and run kind of knowing, so to speak, as in “how the heck did I just know that?” And the answer is usually, “I don’t know; it just came to me….” For people who aren’t used to paying attention to or working with their intuition, it can sometimes feel as though the “knowing” sort of drops into their head rather than originates in them. But the more someone works with it, the more that person will come to realize that it does also come up through the body as other forms of innate knowing do.

I usually differentiate intuition from other kinds of innate knowing, which are more typically associated with inborn talents or “gifts”, because the sustainability and reliability of those are usually more consistent over time and can be deepened with use. (I will add though that when someone has reason to use their intuition in a more consistent manner, it can become innate in that it can become sustainable and reliable.) An easy way to think of innate knowledge is to describe it as “know-how” (as opposed to “know-what” [facts] and “know-why” [science]).

Okay, so now we’re ready to talk a little about how to back up the bus to help get someone to rediscover their innate knowing. First step is to play 20 questions. I would start by asking someone what they think they’re naturally good at (where do they have “know-how”). What comes easily to them? Where do they inevitably gravitate to in activities and thoughts? What are their deep abiding interests? The answers given will start to give us a snapshot. (Of course, there are no right or wrong answers.) If someone says they don’t know to any question, I’ll redirect and come at it from a slightly different angle. Wording can be critical at the beginning to help people keep looking inside themselves. If I saw those questions stumped someone, I’d switch to questions like: What’s the most fun you’ve ever had, what are your hobbies, and so on.

What I’m really looking for is where that person starts to light up. Where can that person start talking to me about something effortlessly? Not that the words are necessarily effortless, but the energy for the subject is effortless. These are all clues. Because whatever makes you feel alive, makes you feel connected. I’m looking for where you’re connected. That’s the easiest place to find some innate knowing. Then we can start moving around from there.

Because innate knowledge is often easily taken for granted and therefore exists as background attention for most people, I’m also not surprised when someone swears they have no innate knowing, because it resides out of most people’s conscious ability to point to it. Unless it’s such a “big” innate knowing that others around them are constantly saying, “Wow, that’s a really big innate knowing you have.” Then it starts to dawn on them. For the person who doesn’t have a bunch of people pointing out his/her big innate knowing, it’s my job to help that person learn how to start paying attention to their own background attention. In other words, I want to get that individual to start paying attention to how they pay attention in general, and then to notice how that might feel different from when they’re paying attention to an innate ability. I want to start bringing their awareness deeper into their body where the innate knowing resides.

The fastest way to get someone deeper into their body and also into their innate knowing is to slap a blindfold on them and take them for a little stroll. People who are disconnected rely most heavily on sight and then the ability to talk. Take away sight, or sight and language together, and they drop like sinkers into their bodies. (If I were working with Martha (not her real name), this is the first place I’d start with her. And the reason I’d tell her we were going to do the exercise was to give her a “feel” for how Mercury (Martha’s dog) experiences his world…) It would take pages to explain what this simple exercise accomplishes, but if you’re curious, give it a try. You only need to do it for a couple of minutes to get the gist of what you’d come to “know”.

There are lots of exercises to help get someone in touch with their innate knowing. I could go on… and on… and on… but this is already getting too long, I fear. The KISS version is, when all else fails, the quickest way is to ask the people who know you best, and the people who you respect, where they think your innate knowing is.

I’m sure C1, could tell you in a couple of minutes. If you sit with those answers for even just a little while, your body’s going to start connecting with your desire to consciously know, and it will start feeding you. Hope this helps. Now you know why I say to people, “rather than have me explain, why don’t you let me show you…”

Oh geez, I just wrote this whole thing and totally missed your question on how you know where it got shut off. If this hasn’t bored you to death or totally missed the mark of your question, let me know, and I’ll have another go at it tomorrow.

C2: I will ponder this for a while. Give the ‘how you know where it is shut off ‘a go when you get a chance if you have a desire to. I’d be interested.

K: Okay, Part Two — the sticky wicket…. How innate knowing gets shut off. As I mentioned, language is the first nail in the coffin. And the nail gun trigger is set on semi-automatic from there. Pretty much everything that indoctrinates us into our cultural, religious, and educational systems — our view of the world — holds a great potential to shut us down from our innate knowing.

Before I go any further — big caveat— I have to make a lot of sweeping generalizations and oversimplifications in order to give a quick overview of a complex subject. And there are and always will be exceptions to these rules and conditions. So please read the following with that in mind.

Culture’s need is to have people conform to the social norms of the time. Religion’s need is to have followers. Education’s need is to instill the agreed upon consensus of knowledge of the time. To the degree that each is successful in perpetuating itself, each requires an acceptance of its “terms and conditions”. Namely, if one buys into those terms and conditions (internalizes those filters) bucking the system often carries a substantial penalty. Most parents raise their children to fit within these systems, because they were raised to fit within these systems, as their parents were before them.

Essentially, each time we get indoctrinated into another “system”, we get more filters placed over our direct connection to innate knowing. Think of these accumulated filters as glasses that start out clear, and over time begin to gradually darken, until they become very, very, very dark sunglasses. Whereas at the beginning we could see through them as though we had no glasses on at all, now, if we’re lucky, we might see the shadow shape of what we’re looking at.

So what is the shadow shape I believe we’re all looking at? The powerful conditioning of these systems to mold us to conform to each one’s version of reality. To the point that most become afraid to tell the truth/their truth for fear of rejection.

Culturally, we’ve been conditioned to give up our knowingness in order to be accepted, to fit in. There’s little support and even less reinforcement to break away from convention. It can start so simply and innocently with a mother telling a child to say he is sorry when he is not. The underlying message is to deny and/or bury what one is truly feeling and conform to being “nice” or “polite” or “good”, etc. In order to retain or regain innate knowing, one must recapture the ability to know what one feels as one is feeling it with no disconnect. Then the greater challenge is to teach oneself to have the courage to speak one’s truth in all circumstances.

Educationally, we’ve been conditioned to “memorize” the one right answer. Someone once said that children enter school as question marks and leave as periods. In order to retain or regain innate knowing, one must stay the question mark and be fearless in one’s pursuit of challenging all knowledge.

Religiously, we’ve been conditioned to believe that in order to know God we must go through priests or ministers or rabbis, etc. That we can’t know God directly for ourselves. (Strictly speaking, Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion, and there is no personage of a God per se.) In order to retain or regain innate knowing, the way one can know “God” is not through another but through the self, the Self in each of us that is God. Because only then there is no separation.

So why might you,C2, feel that much of your innate knowing is hidden from you, even though you retain the three qualities I previously mentioned that help keep us open? What’s most likely happened is that, even with those three conditions present, enough of the rest of you has been over-written by the “systems” programming.

Did I mention that there were other conditions that affected someone’s ability to stay connected to their innate knowing? Two other major pieces that I didn’t mention are:

  • It really helps not to be caught up in what anybody else thinks of you.
  • Not only does it help not to be afraid of the system, but it really, really helps to think it’s fun to challenge it. Other conditions that affect it are heredity, chemical imbalances, your mother as your first teacher, and the ability to naturally rely on and trust yourself.

And there you have it — how to get in touch with tacit knowledge in a nutshell.

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