Say it in many different ways

Shared mental model spaces are challenging to grow and expand. Mental models, especially novel and interesting ones, are subtle and have to be examined patiently to become shareable. The process of sharing itself often causes the models to mutate, creating variants that take off on their own. It’s a bewilderingly complex process, evoking images of mercury drops and murmurations.

And yet, this is how we learn. This is the only process we humans have at our disposal for creating intersubjective reality. Every failed attempt at sharing, each blank stare and subtle — or not-so-subtle — mutation takes us a tiny step closer to expanding our shared mental model space and becoming more capable of communicating together.

I used to get frustrated and give up pretty easily when my ideas were left seemingly unheard. Flip that bozo bit — make life easier. “They don’t get me.” As I’d found, that was a recipe for a self-isolating vicious cycle: my head is full of insights, but nobody can understand what the hell I just said. Why say anything at all?

It took me some time to figure out that for novel ideas and mental models, the rewrite count is crazy-high. Our minds are these massive networks of mental models. To become shared between us, a mental model needs to overlap with enough existing mental models to bridge to the new ideas. So, if I reframe “they are not getting my idea” as “I haven’t yet built enough bridges to their existing models,” the path toward shared mental model space becomes more evident. To get to that resonant moment of understanding, I have to keep conveying and re-conveying concepts in many different ways. I have to say it in many different ways, relying on different framings and metaphors, until the bridge suddenly appears and — click! — you and I share a model.

I also have to let my model mutate. Though it sounds similar, the process I am describing is very different from “convincing.” Achieving a shared mental model means accepting that what I bring with me is subject to change. The bridge works both ways. Your mental models enrich and influence mine. And each re-telling of a concept creates a new opportunity to bridge with someone else’s mind.

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