If you really want to understand what people know, never ask them to expose their ignorance in public. You won’t get an honest answer and here’s why.


You’re giving a talk, are moderating a workshop or meeting, or maybe you are just pairing with another person. You want to signpost the next topic to ensure the group knows where you’re heading. A natural impulse would be to ask “Who doesn’t know about $YYY?” or “Do you know about $YYY?”.


While I personally love Exposing My Ignorance, I also understand that this requires the psychological safety to do so. Chances are, especially in a group of people with different levels of social capital, someone exposing their ignorance might (rightfully) fear of doing so because they’d risk their reputation and at worst could be seen as confirming stereotypes. A very common and relatable example are e.g. junior developers or people who are still on probation.

Another aspect to consider is that, especially with complex topics (e.g. architectures, paradigms), people might have lots of experience in the field but won’t consider themselves knowledgeable. Despite your didactic role as speaker to the group, there’s usually another audience perspective you’d be missing out on if you’re not sharing what you know first.


So instead of asking people to willingly expose their ignorance, take a softer approach and ask whether they’d like to hear a quick primer on your understanding of topic $YYY.

Would you like to hear a quick primer on topic $YYY?
Is it okay if I start with a primer on topic $YYY?

The latter is particularly useful in signaling interest without exposing oneself.

If you want to be really inviting and feel comfortable doing so, you can also expose your ignorance - after all we are only human and nobody can be expected to know everything.

This way, you use your authority to establish a fail-safe environment and you might just find the group more engaged. Here’s an example of the softer approach:

I’ll try to give you a quick overview of what I understood, if that is alright. Please feel free to add your own thoughts at the end so we’re on the same page.

When you call for a meeting or workshop, don’t forget to account for the time it takes to get everyone on the same page. I found using proper timeboxes and an agenda to structure a meeting is much more productive than rushing through the basics and loosing people in the process.

From the Toolbox is a compilation of small practices, tools and life-hacks I collected over the years.