In 1847, a Hungarian physician stumbled across one of the most significant discoveries in modern medicine. Despite his findings, he was largely ignored, and ridiculed by those who stood to gain from his insight.

Ignaz Semmelweis figured out that that doctors were unwittingly transferring pathogens from corpses to pregnant mothers as they treated them. The solution was simple: to dramatically reduce the rates of infection and mortality, all doctors had to do was wash their hands between patients.

Not long afterwards, Joseph Lister shared what was essentially the same idea. Yet, because he could point to other accepted theories he was more effective in influencing the establishment. Today he is widely known as the ‘father of modern surgery’.

Clearly, knowledge on its own is not power.

The ability to make new knowledge accessible to others differentiates the successful leader from their peers. Though there is no universal leadership style, there are universal capabilities. The ability to share knowledge effectively is without doubt one of them.

In this post, I’m going to share a tool that can help you quickly understand how people prefer to learn and act on new information. To use this tool, you will learn the four ‘student archetypes’ people commonly assume when receiving advice. This will help you tailor your communication to open others up to your point of view and ensure your message is heard.

When One Education Ends, Another Begins

It felt like a massive slap across the face.

As soon as I walked in on my first day on the job I realised what I knew meant nothing. The way the athletes were looking at me – many of them much older than I was – told me it wasn’t going to be as simple as I had imagined.

One week after graduating, I was suddenly responsible for preparing and managing some of the highest profile athletes in the country.

In that moment, I realised pretty quickly that before I could do any teaching I must learn.

Not long after my realisation, I had the privilege of attending a lecture by the legendary college basketball coach Lute Olsen. During this lecture, he essentially confirmed my thinking when he said ‘It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts’

I Realised I Needed a Blueprint for Better Sharing

From that point on I immersed myself in the study of all kinds of leaders: religious, political, philosophical and educational. I also watched my colleagues closely to find out who was most effective and why. As I learned and experimented over thousands of interactions I realised something important about giving advice to others.

It’s easy to forget what it’s like not to know what you know.

When you guide others, and give them advice without considering where they are starting from, you make all kinds of assumptions that undermine the outcome. This often creates resistance in those you seek to influence.

Their personality, and how your message makes them feel will dictate how they will respond. In general, there are a couple of core patterns that can be observed: people are either open or closed, and they are either problem focused or solution focused.

If we plot it on a classic quadrant it looks like this.

The Four Student Archetypes and How to Handle Them

The use of this model allows us to consider four core archetypes others fall into when learning new information – I call them ‘student archetypes’.

  • The cynic is closed and problem focused.
  • The sceptic is closed and solution focused.
  • The fanatic is open and problem focused.
  • The politic is open and solution focused.

On our quadrant it looks like this..

By observing where someone fits on this quadrant I could figure out which archetype they might belong to.

Experimenting with different ways of interacting with each archetype allowed me to figure out over time how best to share new information with the person in front of me.

To use this model effectively, you need to assume the approach of a good poker player. The poker player watches their counterparts closely to determine what kind of player they are, and what mood they are in. These ‘tells’ can inform the tactics used to get the desired result.

Be a poker player, look for tells and then tailor your approach to the kind of player you are dealing with.

A word of warning though, remember that what someone is like is often context specific. The same person might be a cynic in one context, and a fanatic in others.

As always with models, they can be useful, though rarely are they accurate. The best way to use this tool is to always be questioning it, and updating your assumptions.  This will ensure you are always improving your ability to share.

The movie ‘The Big Short’, showcases the four archetypes brilliantly. As news spreads that the US economy is about to collapse, the characters all inevitably fall into one of the four archetypes. I have chosen four of the more obvious examples to illustrate my point.

Below each example, I outline the most important ‘tells’ you can use to identify each archetype. Along with these tells are the tactics I recommend for dealing with each of them.

Tells: The cynic can act reserved or even rude in light of new information, and often poisons others with their inherently negative view of the world. They can be sarcastic, passive aggressive or overtly resistant depending on their personality type.

Tips: Fight your instinct to confront this person (unless not doing so will cause others to doubt your conviction or message). Instead step back and make it seem like you are ceding power to this person, yet at the same time make them accountable for their assertions.

Say something like: ‘well it seems like you sure know what you’re doing, what kind of results are you getting with your way?’ How have these changed or improved over time? And how do you expect these to change going forward? What are you basing these assumptions on?

This allows you to move away from opinion, and get to facts. This is really important as often the cynic largely looks through the lens of the past, and how it makes them feel. If you can get them into the present and observing facts, you have a shot at influencing them.

Don’t expect this to always work though, and don’t expect any change in attitude to occur quickly. The best way to deal with a cynic is get results with their peers, and gradually turn them into a vocal minority whom has much to say, yet comparably little success to point to.

Tells: The sceptic won’t dismiss you out of hand like the cynic does, but they will ask probing questions. Their body language, pitch, and tone will tell you they won’t just take your word for it, you will have to convince them. But they can be convinced. Unlike the cynic, they are a little more interested in solving the problem, and have done (or are doing) their own thinking on the matter.

Tips: The sceptic can be your biggest advocate if you engage with them the right way. If you don’t dismiss their experience or insight and are prepared to engage in thoughtful disagreement, this person will champion your cause in a way no one else will.

When discussing your ideas with this person, always come from a place of ‘let’s get to the truth’ rather than, ‘let’s get you to take on my truth’. Chances are, their thinking can and will evolve your own perspective.

No one sees reality clearly, we filter it through our perceptions which are guided by our values. Good discussion and debate leads to higher quality decisions. If you treat this person as a peer, they will open up to your message in pursuit of a solution.

Tells: The fanatic is that person who gets overly excited about what you have to say, yet does not seem to fully understand. They will cling to your advice and treat it like its irrefutable, and treat you like a god. Be warned though, it’s not often a good thing.

Tips: Be very wary of the fanatic, this is probably the most dangerous archetype. They are so desperate to rid of their problem they look for certainty anywhere they can get it. If you come at the fanatic with too much certainty, you are setting yourself up for a fall.

The fanatic will not work to actually understand your message, they just want the end result. If and when hiccups happen, this person will not expect it, and point the finger at you. Do not sell this person, educate them. Make sure they see and understand both the benefits and the risks associated with your approach.

Tells: This person rarely gets overly excited about anything. They are incredibly pragmatic and very logical in their learning. They have little to no hang-ups about changing their mind in the face of new and better information. This is the person whom asks thoughtful questions and really considers your answers.

Tips: Lay it all out for this person in a logical, sequential manner and let them chew on it. If they ask a question, don’t worry about how you need to answer it, just answer it. The politic is less interested in playing games than getting to the truth, and improving outcomes. Help them get there faster, and they’ll love you for it.

The politic is the easiest person to work with, and usually gets results faster and with less hiccups than any of the others. Use this to your advantage by showcasing their results as a case study for the cynics and sceptics.  It’s hard to refute the facts, especially when their peers are proving something works.

Build Your Skills

Remember, knowledge on its own is not power, it is only potential power. The ability to organise, integrate and translate knowledge into action is power, and this ability separates the successful from the smart.

To teach, first learn. Learn who your counterpart is, how they like to learn, and what student archetype they are likely to assume within the a given context. Use this information to frame your advice the right way, and tailor your approach and you will overcome resistance.

As with any skill, the best way to get better is to practice deliberately. Using this framework, start noticing which student archetypes those around you automatically assume within different contexts. Then start experimenting with the tips I have provided here, and come up with your own.