Knowing and “knowing” are not the same

doctor smoke

I just came from the grocery store. You see people you know there if you live in a relatively small town. As I was checking out, I saw one of Hannah’s respiratory therapists outside the front of the store. I knocked on the window to get her attention, and she reacted, but didn’t seem sure what the noise was or where it came from.

She then put a cigarette to her lips and pulled a long drag.

For the record, this is not an anti-smoking rant. It is about the psychology that underlies our communication, though. After all, effective communication is just applied psychology.

Here’s the point: respiratory therapists know better than anyone what happens to people who smoke. They deal with the effects of it every day. Perhaps I should say they “know” what happens to people who smoke–the quotation marks indicating an incomplete knowing.

They may know it intellectually. They have studied it in textbooks, and they have seen the studies. Professionally, they are convinced (I assume) that smoking does damage. Some of them know it deep down, but others (like our friend) only “know” it intellectually, which is not the same as knowing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 18% of adults smoke. (Teenagers are getting the message–about 9% of high school students reported smoking cigarettes at least once in 30 days in 2014, a decrease from nearly 16% in 2011.)

But everybody has job stress and life stress, and many of us do silly things to deal with the stress, like working too hard or drinking or smoking. In fact, the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research suggests that LPNs and Respiratory Therapists smoke at a slightly higher rate than the general population, at around 21% and 19% respectively. That is driven by a number of factors, with stress being one of them.

So I’m not criticizing her. I’m relating to her. I happen to not smoke, but I do other things I “know” are not good for me. You do too.

However, we need to be really clear about the difference between “knowing” and knowing. Because if we’re going to persuade other people to do something, we have to reach down beneath the intellectual veneer and touch them where they live.

A former student delivered a speech in which he said it was easy to stop smoking–he had done it a dozen times. But he finally quit for good when he saw his uncle blowing smoke rings through the tracheostomy he had left after surgeon removed his larynx because of throat cancer. That was what it took for him to get beyond the Surgeon General’s warnings and all the statistics that everybody knows. That sight made it intensely real for him.

That’s the difference between “knowing” and knowing. So now you know.

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with individuals and organizations who want to forge top-notch communication skills to increase their influence and impact. He is associate professor of speech and journalism at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.