No One Knows How Toilets Work

  • June 13, 2019
  • Chris Graham

No One Knows How Toilets Work

Convincing people to follow your ideas means helping them convince themselves.

I Hear You but It’s Still “No”

If you’re reading this, it’s a good bet you’re a conscientious and diligent lawyer. A “counsel” in the best sense of the term. Your advice is thoughtful and well researched. Your ideas are reasonable and grounded in relevant experience. You take your work seriously and presume colleagues do the same.

If that sounds like your character, then I expect it’s also true that you are flummoxed, frustrated and disillusioned when colleagues decline to follow your good advice or say “no” to your good ideas—especially without compelling justification.

  • “We can’t do it that way because of…” [Irrelevant]
  • “That’s too much risk for us…” [Without further explanation]
  • “My gut is telling me…” [It hasn’t done any research]

Sound familiar? Let me tell you a story about toilets.

The Illusion of Explanatory Depth

Several years ago, researchers started asking the following question: “On a scale of 1 to 7, how well do you understand how a toilet works?” The average response was about 4.5/7.

So, people don’t know how to build a toilet, but no one is surprised by the flush.

Researchers then asked people to explain, in as much detail as possible, how a toilet works. Most people did not know very much. (Take a minute and try it for yourself— and then Google the detailed answer.)

Finally, researchers asked participants to re-rate their understanding of how a toilet works. This time, the average response fell to 2/7.

That difference, from 4.5 to 2, is known as the Illusion of Explanatory Depth.

People Think They Know More Than They Do

The “Illusion,” let’s call it, exists for almost all things about which you could have knowledge: toilets, zippers, bicycles and even complicated stuff like climate change or tax policy. Researchers have asked the same questions and discovered the same pattern of response: people always think that they know more than they do and that their view of the world is right.

While you’ve probably never heard of this research, you’ve definitely felt its infuriating consequence. People thinking that they know more than they do is a major reason those people say “no” to your good ideas or decline to follow your good advice.

Think about it: a person who thinks their understanding of a situation is 4.5/7 (or higher) isn’t listening to you. Why would they? As far as they’re concerned, they’ve got a decent handle on the situation.

But if you can get that person to realize their understanding of a situation is closer to 2/7, now they’re open to different viewpoints.

Actual Versus Potential Knowledge

The Illusion’s cause lies in a weirdly pervasive feature of human memory: the failure to differentiate between actual and potential knowledge.

Think of your favourite book—a novel, not a children’s book—one that’s changed your life in a meaningful way. You’ve read this book a few times. When people ask for recommendations, this is the one you suggest.

Do you have it? Good.

Now write down the novel’s first sentence. If that’s too difficult, write down the names of all the novel’s characters. If that’s still too difficult, write down a high-level summary of each chapter. (Can you even remember how many chapters there are?) My experience is that even the most dedicated readers struggle with this exercise.

My favourite book is Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. It’s long—over 1,000 pages—but I’ve read it three times, lectured on it at a university and lead a six-month reading group on it. I own several reading guides and have read a dozen more online. Yet, I still can’t tell you the names of more than six characters or give you anything more than a cursory review of the novel’s plot.

Of course, when I’m able to refer back to the book (review passages, check citations and otherwise refresh my memory), I can give you much more detail—and this is just the point.

When we reason about the world—talk about our favourite book, how a toilet works or why a business decision is likely to unfold a certain way—we conflate the actual knowledge we have in our minds with the potential knowledge we have access to, somewhere, in the world.

Virtually every time, our actual knowledge is much less than our potential knowledge.

Don’t Tell People They Don’t Know

Something else to notice from the previous section: even if you were surprised by how little you could recall offhand about your favourite novel, imagine how it would’ve felt if I’d just told you that you don’t know very much about your favourite novel.

I expect you would feel defensive. (Consider the toilet story: If I ask you to rate your understanding and you say “5/7”, and I respond with, “Actually, you’re closer to 2/7”.) And when you’re feeling defensive, your first impulse is to defend yourself, rather than try to learn something new.

The same thing happens when you tell someone they’re wrong or say that you’re right because of reason, reason, reason. Even if you are right, people aren’t listening. Instead, they’re focused on how to justify their initial idea or view that you rejected.

All else being equal, people are much more amenable to discovering the limits of their understanding than being told the limits.

Yeah, but I Know I’m Right

Last year I started the Roar Festival, a music festival fundraiser for Camp Ooch (a camp for kids with cancer). The festival happened in September but I only came up with the idea in August—meaning, I had to convince my friends that we could create a festival, from scratch, in eight weeks.

My friends were skeptical: “No way. Impossible.”

A typical response at this point would be to try to convince my friends by showing them all my research into festival planning. (After all, I’m the only one who’d done the research.) In other words, I could try to bludgeon them with reasons.

Instead, I said, “Okay, that’s interesting. Tell me more about that. What seems impossible?”

“Um… Well, it just seems like too much to do in too little time.”

“Okay, interesting. That’s definitely possible. What all do you think is involved?”


“Okay, so I think what I’m hearing is that it would be helpful to think through, in a bit more detail, exactly what’s involved.”

So, we did that. I walked people through my research showing what’s involved in planning a festival. Partway through my friends started to realize, on their own, that building the festival was possible. Eight weeks later, it happened: six bands, a bouncy castle, lots of fun. We raised enough money to send a kid with cancer to summer camp.

Don’t let the happy ending obscure the serious point: If I had just told them that we could do the festival—that I was right, that I’d done all the research, that when people balked at the initial idea, they literally didn’t know what they were talking about—the festival would not have happened.

Listen People into Submission

My experience with lawyers—with decision-makers of any kind, actually—is that the most common approach to changing peoples’ minds or building support for an idea looks something like this: you state your position and then give reasons to support that position, on the theory that your reasons will carry the day.

That approach—position followed by reasons—is inside out. Unless the person you’re trying to convince is especially self-aware and open to learning, the Illusion of Explanatory Depth all but guarantees that they are going to over-estimate their understanding of the situation and, consequently, underestimate your understanding. It’s frustrating and disappointing for all involved. An actual bonfire of vanities.

Rather than telling people why you’re right, ask them to explain their position. Be curious rather than inquisitorial. (Maybe they really do know everything about toilets.) In response to skepticism or rejection, try something like the following:

“Interesting. Can you tell me more about that?” (To discover they cannot.)

“It sounds like you have a lot of experience. Can you share more?” (Ditto.)

“Can you give me some specific examples of what you’re suggesting?” (Ditto, or their examples aren’t relevant.)

The basic idea is to get people talking about their understanding so that together you can both discover the gap between their potential knowledge and their actual knowledge. It takes longer and requires greater patience, but it’s the only way to get legitimate buy-in to your ideas and advice.

Chris Graham is the founder of TellPeople (, a vehicle for teaching communication and storytelling to lawyers. Twice retired from law himself (first in New York, then in Toronto), Chris is now an entrepreneur, producer, investor and storyteller. Through TellPeople, he makes lawyers better at talking to their clients, each other and everyone else.