20 May 2023

How to avoid being a know-all

We all know a know-all – someone who believes that they possess a superior intellect and wealth of knowledge and is determined to demonstrate that superiority at every opportunity. We all love trivia, useless knowledge and the occasional weird feats of memory, but most of us realise it is not clever to trumpet such empty expertise.

An overpowering urge to correct other people and to display superior knowledge is an unattractive tendency that will impair your ability to connect with people socially. Know-all behaviour is a form of showing off, a way of remorselessly displaying your pearls of wisdom to the assembled company. This impulse to dominate intellectually inevitably leads to a tendency to dismiss other people’s opinions, to sweep objections to one side, to tell other people how to do their job.

Know-all behaviour is likely to cause irritation or aversion; tentative statements, self-deprecation and a sense of humility are all ways in which we charm and flatter our companions and are a much more effective way of making friends than battering them with our sense of certitude and rectitude.

There are several characteristics that define know-alls. They tend to be argumentative and contentious, closed to other points of view and remorselessly unforgiving if any gaps or flaws in their knowledge are revealed. Attempts to disagree with them are often met with condescension. Their overriding priority is to impress and dominate; whatever subject comes up, they will seamlessly project themselves as an expert, often with little justification. They are strangers to self-doubt.

If you fear you might have tendencies in this direction, think about the following:

• Remind yourself that you’re not always right

Nobody knows everything. In fact, many experts confirm that the more we know about any given subject the less confident we feel about it, so brazen over-confidence is a clear indicator that we still have a lot to learn.

• Restrain your impulse to correct others

We all know that people who are constantly doling out corrections are intensely annoying and frustrating. It is strange that they are prioritising being right over making meaningful connections. Try asking yourself why you feel compelled to correct others and acknowledge that the self-satisfaction that comes from being right comes at a very heavy price.

• Take your time

Know-alls tend to be impulsive interrupters, who cannot stand to let a statement they perceive to be wrong go unchallenged. Practise the art of listening silently, and letting other people finish their train of thought. Once they have had their say, you can offer a considered opinion, and they may well be much more respectful of what you say if you appear to be calm and reasonable.

• Use qualifiers

Definitive statements can feel like body blows when you’re haranguing someone on your favourite subject or having an argument. But qualifications such as “I believe” or “I’ve heard” of “I’ve read somewhere” have an instant mitigating effect, making your assertions sound much more reasonable. Don’t litter your conversation with phrases like “I think you’ll find that” or “Actually” or “As a matter of fact”, which will simply serve to reinforce your overbearing demeanour.

• Ask questions
If you are overcome by an urge to tell people that they are wrong, or mistaken, at least try to phrase your challenge in a more socially acceptable way. Asking questions rather than handing out repressive corrections is the best way to approach this situation. Try using phrases like “Have you thought about…?”, “What about…?”, “Why do you think that?”.

• Embrace errors and inconsistency

Accept the fact that you don’t have to always be right and neither do other people. When you hear people saying something that you know to be incorrect, take a little time to monitor your response. A truly egregious error, which might lead to confusion or even more dire consequences, should be gently corrected. But quite often people mis-remember or exaggerate or embroider their anecdotes; there is nothing more annoying than a know-all who keeps interjecting with amendments, which undermine the person talking and have no real relevance to the subject in hand.

• Read the room

Some know-alls arm themselves with a shield of knowledge under the mistaken belief that it will stand them in good stead when they’re called upon to socialise or meet other people. They are fundamentally under-confident and self-conscious and think that an impressive array of knowledge will disguise their shortcomings. But in many circumstances people you meet will not want to be regaled with your mini-lectures and painstaking explanations, so you need to learn to assess the social atmosphere and listen to the tone of the conversation. People who are enjoying banter, teasing and trivial chit-chat, are not likely to be won over by someone who is intent on lecturing them. As a general default, in most social situations it always better to ask people questions and listen carefully to their responses, rather than tell them about yourself and your preoccupations.

• Admit you’re wrong

Everyone is wrong sometimes and being able to hold up your hands and admit your errors, preferably with a little humour, is a very useful social skill. Your instinct is probably to defend yourself when challenged, but this could lead to you digging an ever-deeper hole for yourself. Pause, consider the challenge and – if it is correct – try to immediately acknowledge it (no ifs, buts, circumlocutions). Practise saying “you’re quite right”, “I should have phrased that differently”, “I think I might have got that wrong”, and do your best to speak these phrases with humour and modesty. People will instantly warm to you and find you less over-bearing.


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