I recently started reading Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. It’s a really interesting look at how to really make ideas and communication “stick”. They explain a study in the 90’s in which a Ph.D. candidate created a simple game. She assigned people one of two roles: tappers and listeners.

Basically, the tappers got a list of simple songs that most of us know:  Happy Birthday, The Star-Spangled Banner, Old McDonald, etc. The listeners had to guess what song was being tapped. Simple right?

The tappers anticipated that the listeners would guess the songs correctly 50% of the time when, in reality, they only got it right 2% of the time. The tappers were becoming increasingly frustrated with the listeners. After all, how could you not guess Happy Birthday when tapped out on a table?

They found it was due to “the curse of knowledge”. Once we know something, it’s hard to imagine what it was like to not know it.  Because the tappers knew what song they were tapping, they actually heard the song in their head. It was impossible for them not to hear the song when tapping, which made it difficult to understand why
the listener couldn’t figure out the song.

Ah, the curse of knowledge. What seems so completely common sense to us, based on our knowledge or frame of reference, can be perceived so differently from someone else who is looking at the situation from their perspective.

This happens in work, at home, and in every area of our life.  If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone and felt completely frustrated because they just didn’t “get it”, you’ve been a tapper. If you’ve been on the other side of the conversation and been frustrated because the other person is completely convinced their right, and you think they’re nuts, it might be because you can’t hear the song in their head.

Are you a tapper?  Since you can’t unlearn what you already know, it’s important to take time to hum the tune for others.  Be careful not to expect people to automatically know things that seem second nature to you.  You’ll spend a lot of time frustrated, and they still won’t get it.  What tune will you tap this week?


  1. Very good. This give me some ideas for our Strategic Planning in a few weeks. I might have our team to try this exercise.

  2. Good Morning Anne thank you for all you do. Every one of you posting hit right on the money. I really love reading your posting and look forward to reading them al the time. I guess I am a tapper, I will stop and learn to hum the tune. Have a Blessed Day!

  3. An absolute truism in the arena of customer service and support if there ever was one. The example really makes it clear and easy for others to understand.

    -Jay Grady (who has somewhat of a relationship with the blog’s author, though I caaaan’t quite put my finger on it…hhmmmm)

  4. Excellent word. Knowledge or lack of has tripped me up in many conversations. I’m guilty of being the frustrated tapper and listener. Now I step back in either situation, take a breath and remember John Maxwell’s statement “people don’t care what you know until they know that you care”. Thanks for the encouragement!!

    • Thanks Nita! I love John Maxwell…got to see him speak a couple years ago…hilarious and so motivational.

      Hope to see you at the conference!

  5. It takes two to tango and the listener may have poor listening skills as well. I have learned to pay attention to what I’m thinking when listening to someone. The instant one begins to formulate a response is usually the instant they stopped listening and miss the most important element of what is being said. I have learned to listen with my entire being or I miss valuable information.

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