Why Playing Dumb Isn’t So Stupid

I know two people who dumb themselves down as a helpful daily habit.

But isn’t it ridiculous to appear less informed, less intelligent or less business-smart?

Why would we want to give the impression of knowing, or being capable of, less?

The lady in question uses phrases such as:

  • “It’s always enlightening speaking to you”
  • “I know you’ll know better than I on this one”
  • “I’m sure you can help me out here”

The man in question often says:

  • “You’re the expert, you can tell me”
  • “I don’t know a patch on what you know”
  • “That’s why we’re here, because you know what you’re doing”

Why? Because it’s flattering and it makes people feel more confident and more comfortable working with us.

What’s the alternative?

We can enter a  conversation knowing “it all.” We can enter into a “one-upmanship” type dialogue, competing to know the most. At worst, we can cause hostility and at best it may divert conversation off-focus.

The benefits of dumbing down are building both rapport and trust  – and quickly. Neither of my colleagues sound ingratiatingly flattering or insincere when in conversation. They simply seem confident enough to declare what is their expertise and, importantly, what isn’t.

When do we want to show superior knowledge? Well, we might not want a salesperson selling a washing machine to think us under-informed – because we don’t want waffle or expensive add-on warranties, just the important product details.

But in business and everyday work exchanges we want people to speak freely, to open up and to engage. We need to talk to understand each other better. When we feel we’re competing and put on the back foot then it’s threatening. That’s when we check what we’re saying and we slow down dialogue.

So when might we benefit from dumbing down?

Speaking to our boss
We might impress the boss by blaring our knowledge. But by asking the boss for pertinent advice and viewpoints demonstrates a wisdom, eagerness for guidance, the ability to listen and some forethought.

In meetings
We might think it helpful to hold court, putting our hat in the ring. But sometimes the people who sit back, listen, take in the meeting and then swoop in at the end, summing up others’ points, plus adding a clever curve ball that encompasses others’ interests – it’s they who make an impact.

Managing projects
There are many people to cajole and oversee on a project  Regular reminders and direction are required but not necessarily knowing it all. All arms of the project employ people in roles requiring intelligence and abilities – which they want to use. So gently guided conversation, drawing on their expertise, will gain commitment to action sooner.

Supervising staff
We may well know the facts and tactics needed but brains work best when they’ve worked out answers. Coaching – asking questions instead of telling – lets others find solutions themselves, as opposed to someone in charge knowing and instructing how. Besides, staff often better understand the when, what, why, how and where.

So back to my colleagues – what do we get for dumbing ourselves down?

The benefits:

  • The lady’s clients love working with her, plus the people who need her help open up sooner, confiding truths she wouldn’t otherwise hear.
  • People tell her they trust working with her like no other in her industry.
  • My male friend gains respect, cooperation and more straightforward and honest negotiations.
  • He gains  quality work contracts faster, he builds swift partnerships and opportunities present themselves because others recommend working with him.

So it isn’t about being ignorant – it may only seem initially to be playing thick –  it’s about playing it smart. It’s humility, a warm welcome and a genuine safe space to tell us what they know  – which directs us how to work together better.

It’s not about outsmarting someone else, it’s about cooperation and partnership  – for long-lasting business results in both relationships and profit.

Next time, in a meeting or conversation, maybe see what a bit of dumbing down can do?

Other articles you may like:

How to beat the biggest barrier in negotiation

How to delegate to get things done

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6 thoughts on “Why Playing Dumb Isn’t So Stupid”

  1. Love this article and agree totally.

    Check out a book called ‘Daring Greatly’ by Brene Brown – it’s all about vulnerability and courage – it’s awesome

  2. Great Article Clare.
    My last FD was an inspirational man who always made you feel like he needed your input – made you feel like the expert.
    I have also seen managers who are so keen to impress on you that they know what they are talking about, that the people who work for them feel like they are always catching up.
    One invites and values opinion and contribution – the other does not.

  3. Hi Clare,
    I also agree with this excellent advice. I once had a (highly intelligent) boss who would say “It’s probably just because I’m stupid, but…” as a way of getting something complex explained or broken down. Not only did it work but it made him approachable and likeable to us lesser mortals!
    Thanks for your helpful articles.

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