"It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt." — Mark Twain
Think-They-Know-It-All people can’t fool all the people all the time.
But they can fool some of the people enough of the time, and enough of the people all of the time – all for the sake of getting some attention.
They know how to learn just enough about a subject to sound like they know what they are talking about. They are addicted to exaggeration as an attention-getting technique.
They might even suffer from the the Dunning-Kruger effect (dumb people don’t know they’re dumb.)
In Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst, Dr. Rick Brinkman and Dr. Rick Kirschner write about how to deal with people that behave like Think-They-Know-It-Alls.
Your Goal in Dealing with a Think-They-Know-It-All Person
Your goal in dealing with a difficult person who demonstrates the bad behavior of a Think-They-Know-It-All is to give their bad ideas the hook, and take them off the stage.
“Your goal is to catch them in their act and give their bad ideas the proverbial hook, just as bad acts were removed from the stage in Vaudeville days. Only in this case, you’ll want to do so without putting the Think-They-Know-It-All on the defensive."
Action Plan for Dealing with a Think-They-Know-It-All Person
- Give the person a little attention. Use two ways: 1) backtrack their comments with enthusiasm 2) Acknowledge positive intent rather than wasting your time with their content.
- Clarify for specifics. Ask them for some revealing clarification questions for specifics. Since the Think-They-Know-It-All speaks in huge generalizations you’ll want to question the use of universal words like "everybody" with "Who specifically?", "always" with "When specifically?", and "significant" with "Significant in what way, specifically?"
- Tell it like it is. Redirect the conversation back to reality.
- Give the person a break. Resist the temptation to embarrass them. Make them an ally by giving them a way out and again minimizing the chance of putting them on the defensive.
- Break the cycle. Recognize the negative cycle and work with the person to break the cycle. Break the cycle by doing two things: 1) use gentle confrontation to tel lthem the truth about the consequences of their negative behavior 2) Actively look for and notice what this problem person is doing right, and give them credit where credit is due.
Examples of Responding to a Think-They-Know-It-All Person
Brinkman and Kirschner provide examples of dealing with Think-They-Know-It-Alls:
- Give their ideas a little attention. "thanks for wanting us to get the right system for our people." (Acknowledge positive intent)
- Clarify for specifics. "Are you aware of the file transfer capabilities between Bartlett and BMI?"
- Give the person a break. "But may you haven’t had a chance to read those articles yet?" (Give them a break)
Key Take Aways
Here are my key take aways:
- Know that the Think-They-Know-It-All just wants attention. Just recognizing this might help you deal with the Think-They-Know-It-All better.
- Use clarifying questions over debate. Asking the right questions, in front of the right people, is better than arguing.
- Have mercy. You don’t want to put them on the defensive. You don’t want to scar them emotionally. Your purpose is to just to take the bad ideas off the stage.
A little attention can go a long way.
The key is to refocus the attention in the right direction.