7 Proven Strategies to Stop Being a Know-It-All

by Alli Polin on June 9, 2015

strategies to stop being a know it all

I try to help my children with their homework when they need it. As much as it annoys them, I’m always offering to quiz them on their spelling words, review multiplication tables, or just cuddle up to read a book. If you ask them why they often decline my offer, they’d probably say that I tend to correct them too often.

I figure they’re in primary school so I can still wow them with my knowledge and know-it-all wisdom. In a few years, I’ll look like one of the losers on “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader.”

I’ve always had strong spelling skills, but lately they’re being stretched and challenged to the point that the kids are starting to notice. They now realize that their know-it-all Mom may not know everything about everything (as it once seemed).

This weekend, my son decided to turn the tables and ask me some spelling words:

Do you know how to spell snorkeling? Coloring? Of course I do, so I decided to turn the tables yet again and ask him to spell them for me… just in case I need some help.

S-n-o-r-k-e-l-l-i-n-g

“Honey, there aren’t two “l’s” in snorkeling.”

“In Australia there are,” he said. (Oh, and I googled it just in case he was wrong; he was not.)

C-o-l-o-u-r-i-n-g

“Honey….” I’m about to correct him when…

Oh, crap (insert mental head slap here). I’m the one who needs the spelling lesson, because, of course, in Australia, it is colouring, not coloring.

“I s-p-e-l-t them right!”

“Yes, you did. Good job.”

How did I go from know-it-all, to know some things some of the time, to other things not at all? I moved around the world. I’ve also gotten older, and I have l-e-a-r-n-e-d that I have a heck of a lot more to master than I actually know for sure.

I first realized that I was suffering from know-it-all syndrome long before motherhood and well before my expat days. It happened when I moved from management consulting into HR. We all know that lingo and best practices do not always translate across corporate lines, or even divisional ones.

At work and home, when a know-it-all is in the room, it puts everyone else in a very uncomfortable box: know-nothing. Honestly, knowing everything and having every answer is not leadership despite what many are told, it’s a blind spot.

Stop Being a Know-It-All

Signs you may be a know-it-all too, and just not, um, know it:

  • Did you spend the first large chunk of your career with a single organization but now work somewhere new?
  • Do you have best practices that are set in stone because they always work, never ever fail, and bring with you everywhere you go?
  • Have you worked for countless organizations so you absolutely know what everyone else is doing?
  • Correct others often?
  • Actively wear people down with your brilliant arguments and always correct viewpoints?
  • Long for the days when everything was hardcopy, and you had your handy red pen by your side?

Hold on tight, your know-it-all syndrome may be kicking into high gear.

It’s time to stop being a know-it-all and choose to be a leader who people want to work with, instead of an arrogant twit. (Okay, maybe you’re not that bad, but think of a know-it-all who you know. Imagine, that’s what people think when they think about you. Gasp!)

Ready to Stop Being a Know-It-All? Here’s how:

Back Down:

Pushing your agenda over and over?  Your approach the only one you’re willing to consider? Back down. Nobody’s ever died from taking a step back and, in fact, it’s probably saved a life (and a job) or two.

Action: Prioritize the team over an individual win. Take a walk if you need it and then, even for a moment, ask yourself: What if I’m wrong?

Listen:

This means listening to the person who is speaking, not the comebacks you’re already planning in your head. You may discover a thing or two that when integrated with your great know-it-all ideas make things even stronger.

Action: Silence your inner voice and focus on what others are communicating. When they’re done speaking, process and respond.

Ask:

Questions are one of your most powerful leadership tools. However, “How do you know?” can come off like a challenge or a genuine attempt to deepen understanding. Avoid being accusatory in your tone and instead turn up the volume on your curiosity. It’s critical that you learn to remove frustration and invite connection. 

Action: Take note not only of your words, but also your tone. Proactively apologize when you miss the mark.

Body Awareness:

Know-it-alls often have a smug look on their face or arms crossed. Your body language can convey openness to collaboration or arrogance.

Action: If you catch your reflection in the window and it’s putting off better-than-thou vibes, change it up.

Share:

First of all, holding back on what you know doesn’t forward team or individual success. Secondly, it’s about how and why you do it, not what.

Action: Share in service of others, not because you’re behaving like you’re a two-year-old and your way is the only option.

Step up:

You’re selling yourself short if you assume you already know enough, Mr. or Ms. Know-it-All. Personal leadership requires growth, and that happens not only through thinking about what’s new, but also doing.

Action: When you offer to help, mean it. Dive in, be hands on, expand your skills, and knowledge.

Humility:

You are not the only person in the world or company or family or town who matters (I think you get my drift) You may be positionally higher, but everyone has ideas that matter. Every moment of every day is not all about you and what you know.

Action: Don’t confuse humility with being meek, instead know your strengths and limits. Accept that others are gifted too, and help them shine.

Respect:

Take into consideration that richness comes from diversity. Instead of constantly correcting, ignoring or tuning out people who think or act differently from you, accept. Nobody wants to be hit over the head with your know-how, especially if it always means that they’re wrong.

Action: Let people know that you have heard them. Tell them what you appreciate about their ideas and effort and not only what you would have done differently.

Know this: You can change! You can stop being a know-it-all and make better choices to become the leader, parent, friend and spouse who you truly want to be.

I’m still a proficient speller, but I’ll never have strong skills using the Australian way of spelling. Undoubtedly, my children will not only know more than me about spelling, but also many other things over our lifetime. That’s not a truth for a reformed know-it-all to resist, but one to celebrate.

How have you broken the know-it-all cycle in your life and leadership?

 

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Terri Klass June 9, 2015 at 9:50 am

I can’t stop laughing as I read your fascinating post, Alli!

I have people in my family who are know-it-alls and when they make mistakes they have such a hard time dealing with it. For me the best way to approach things that I think I know a lot about is to listen first and then process. I find I am always learning something new about subjects that are most familiar. When we keep an eye to possibilities, we will keep growing and innovating.

Your kids are the best!! Great post!

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Alli Polin June 10, 2015 at 1:04 am

It’s definitely a learned skill to listen and then process. I’ve worked with many people who have mastered shooting from the hip… but are unable to take a back seat at any point. Either they’re in front or they’re not interested.

There are definitely shades of know-it-alls. My kids probably wish I could let some more mispronunciations and misspellings slide, but just as I’m learning, so are they.

At some point, my kids will look at my blog and say “what! why did you write about me???” 🙂

Thanks, Terri!

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John Bennett June 9, 2015 at 11:08 am

Great post as usual. Your suggestion in the second box (Question, don’t challenge to understand, not conquer”) sums it up very well. And might I add, must be considered for a bit to be understood – a good thing!!!

If we think logically and clearly, with not even knowing what most of the important jobs will be in ten years and with the expansion of knowledge happening so quickly, how can ANYONE ever think they know it all??? I’m a firm believer in and proponent of the following being formal education’s most important goal: HELPING ALL LEARNERS DEVELOP THE SKILLS OF EFFECTIVE LEARNING!!! Lifelong learning is an absolute requirement of a successful personal life and career!!!

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Alli Polin June 10, 2015 at 1:08 am

You know, the intent behind the words in that box was so clear to me when I wrote it. I’ve since re-read it and scratched my head wondering if it is too confusing. Glad it resonated with you too.

I’m totally with you too. The world is changing at a rapid pace and if you know it all in this moment, it’s impossible to know what’s around the corner and keep up – let alone get ahead of it and innovate. The goal you state is the one that I’m trying to do with my children. I don’t want to harass them or constantly correct, I want them to learn how to learn for the long haul.

Appreciate your insights, John!

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Ingrid June 9, 2015 at 8:04 pm

I laughed as a I read this Alli! I have three know-it-alls in my family, and have suffered at the hands of others in the workplace.

These people truly do not know how to listen. And listening is one of the greatest gifts you can give another person.

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Alli Polin June 10, 2015 at 1:12 am

Your experience echoes mine. They ask for feedback and are ready to defend before a word is said. They are great with giving directions but not when it comes to listening to alternatives.

Listening is a beautiful gift, I agree. Years ago when I went through coach training we spent an entire weekend learning how to listen. I thought it was crazy when I saw the syllabus but learning the levels of listening and how to listen was incredible.

Appreciate your reading and feedback! Thanks, Ingrid!

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LaRae Quy June 9, 2015 at 9:23 pm

I love the wisdom in this post, Alli!

I believe that if we are truly humble and grateful, we will never risk being a know-it-all. Gratitude is an essential element of mental toughness…it means understanding that we all have something to be grateful for in this life. Negativity and gratitude cannot co-exist…

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Alli Polin June 10, 2015 at 1:15 am

Fantastic addition, LaRae! Gratitude really does change the way we see the world and our place in it. Love thinking about some leaders I know reframing their perspective to be grateful for the contribution of others instead of seeing them as objects in their way.

Thanks for your insights!

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Jon Mertz June 10, 2015 at 7:49 am

Great watch points to avoid being a know-it-all! I avoid ever saying “At XYZ company, we always did it this way.” First, organizations are different. Second, there are more engaging ways to weave in your experiences without using some “standard” others cannot relate to.

Thanks! Jon

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Alli Polin June 15, 2015 at 9:32 pm

When people throw around what they did at their old organization it immediately creates some resistance. People begin to think “that’s not here” or “we’re different.” Not a great way to build trust or a relationship with your team. Love how you put it, Jon. Thanks!

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Karin Hurt June 10, 2015 at 8:35 am

Alli,
Excellent post. I often find that when people are acting like “know it alls” its often that deep inside they are afraid they don’t! The cover-up of arrogance is actually fear. It’s amazing the connection and the progress that can be made by just admitting what you don’t know.

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Alli Polin June 15, 2015 at 8:44 am

With you on that one, Karin. They don’t want to be found out and turn up their know-it-all wisdom off the scales. The leaders I respect are the ones who were unafraid to say that they didn’t know and were willing to find out.

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Chery Gegelman June 19, 2015 at 12:09 am

Awesome! I love the spelling examples. One more way our expat lives teach us about the world – something so small and yet so powerful!

I’ve been a know-it-all. (Not proud of that behavior!)
And I’ve worked with a few!

And every part of me agrees that everyone we work with has knowledge we could benefit from – if we listen.

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Cecilia March 6, 2017 at 2:34 am

Thank you for this wonderful advisory.

I used to be a know-it-all, and just like you, I am extremely proficient in spelling and fluent in English.

When my kids grew older, they tried to hoist me with my own petard, especially my daughter.

She is a chip off the old block and now sometimes dons the know-it-all-cap. Her older brother does that too.

While in school I must have missed the tutorial on how to pronounce words starting with ‘v’ as opposed to those starting with ‘w’.

So whenever I would be expounding on some topic, my daughter would barely listen to what I was saying and would keep her ears tuned to pounce on my mispronunciation of words like ‘vice, venom, victory, vengeance,’ etc.

I have a younger sister who has this virus deeply embedded. Most of us siblings picked it up from our father who was a dyed-in-the-wool know-it-all.

I intend to pass this on to those who are, and those know someone who is, and hope we, and they, change for the better.

Thank you again.

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Alli Polin March 6, 2017 at 11:27 pm

Thanks for sharing your experience, Cecilia! I could certainly relate!

Best,

Alli

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