That's Not Actually What You Were Thinking
March 27, 2013 2:13 PM   Subscribe

So I now need to work with a subtle know-it-all. How do I do this?

A typical conversation goes like so:
knowitall: So, can you explain X to me?
me: Sure, X is Y and Z and explain, explain, explain
knowitall: Oh, yep, that's what I was thinking
This, on repeat, for lots of things - it's 'knowledge work' and the knowitall is new, so lots of questions, and lots of 'oh, yeah, I knew thats'. It's irritating, since I never get as much as a 'thanks' without a 'of course' or a 'just like I was thinking' or, even in one case, a 'Duh'.

Option A is to ignore that and I'm working on that, but a workplace of only wonderful people has given me few coping mechanisms for this admittedly subtle annoyance. What else does one do?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Next line from you should be "You're welcome!"
posted by raisingsand at 2:18 PM on March 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would venture that because this person is new, they're saying that a lot because they are afraid what they're asking is common knowledge and they want to make sure you don't think they are an idiot for not knowing it 100% confidently in the first place. Once that person has been there for awhile, this should happen less and less.

I say that as having been that person.

However, if it does keep happening, you could jokingly retort "well, why did you ask then? [hahaha]". But this could backfire by making the person uncomfortable with asking for verification on things; and remember, it's good that they are asking questions because it means they want to do things correctly!
posted by Eicats at 2:21 PM on March 27, 2013 [26 favorites]

This isn't a know it all precisely; this is someone who is really afraid you think they are ignorant.

Does that help?
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 2:24 PM on March 27, 2013 [52 favorites]

I say that sometimes, and it's not because I'm a know-it-all (though I totally am), but because I had a thought and was glad to hear someone confirm that my thought was correct. "I knew that" is not them being a know it all either; it's them going, "Oh, crap, I did know that, why didn't I trust my gut?"

Have you considered that the way you explain things may be making this person feel undervalued, ignorant, or stupid?
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 2:28 PM on March 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

I'm also assuming they're new and trying to hide their ignorance. Don't blast them for asking. I think if you just say, "No problem; let me know if you have other questions," would be a kind and supportive thing to say.
posted by kinetic at 2:29 PM on March 27, 2013 [9 favorites]

Instead of answering, find a subtle way to ask them how they think it works.

'hey Bob, it's great that you're curious about....'

Or! Give them an answer with n degrees of wrongness. Choose n to your comfort. Correct your know-it-all later.

Later is also malleable.

Or you could be a super professional adult and address this as a defense mechanism that is unnecessary, unprofessional, and frustrating.
posted by tulip-socks at 2:30 PM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I do this from time to time, and it falls into two categories:

1) please confirm what I am thinking, ok good we're on the same page

2) what you just said was extremely nebulous, and rather than say, "hey, doofus, you're not making any sense" I'm going to ask you to please explain it to me in the hopes that you clarify what it is you're actually asking for, except instead you said something kind of patronizing like spelled out a common word you don't think I know, so I'm just going to kind of nod my head because you're kind of erratic and if I ask you too many times you're going to get pissy

Assuming you are not known to be a hothead, your coworker is probably going to fall into category 1 or, what others are saying, the "please don't think I'm stupid" category.
posted by phunniemee at 2:33 PM on March 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

st. alia's right - my minor additional spin on it is: the only thing you need to do here is to realize how much power you have in this situation, and not give it all away by getting mad at someone who is trying to impress you.
posted by facetious at 2:36 PM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

It could also be self-defeating self-talk. They're not saying "I knew that," they're saying "Self, dummy, you knew that."

Upon Preview, I agree with These Birds of a Feather.
posted by China Grover at 2:39 PM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

You could try this: the next time they ask a question, establish what they already know before you dive in.

New Coworker: Can you tell me about A?
You: Well, there's a lot to know about A. Have you dealt with it before? What do you know already?
NCW: Um, well, I know A is for Apple, and Aardvark, and is the first letter of the alphabet, and is a vowel.
You: You may be interested to know that A is also for Anaconda and Anachronism, but it sounds like you understand this pretty well.
NCW: I knew that.
You: Yeah you did! High five!

I think it's a better teaching and training tool anyway, to get them to tell you what they already know or what their best guess is. That way you don't tell them things they already know, and it strengthens the knowledge in the new person's mind - I think you remember things better after you say them out loud than after someone tells them to you - and it saves you time as well. Just make sure you don't come off as setting a trap to reveal their ignorance.


It may be that new coworker really does know a lot but has come from an environment where they were second-guessed a lot, or where the rules were constantly changing. Or they might just be really insecure. So they might ask question to cover themselves. "Um, I think this is X but what if I assume it's X and they think I'm stupid?" So they ask, and then it's exactly what they thought, and they say, "Um I knew that." So you don't think they're REALLY stupid.

Remember your primary goal is not for new coworker to stop saying "I knew that," but to help them become more confident in their role. Which should mean that they stop saying "I knew that," so often.
posted by bunderful at 2:43 PM on March 27, 2013 [29 favorites]

It may be that new coworker really does know a lot but has come from an environment where they were second-guessed a lot, or where the rules were constantly changing.

Oh god, this is an excellent point. My office is like wonder I'm so friggin careful whenever I have to ask a question! Bunderful's advice is great.
posted by phunniemee at 2:46 PM on March 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

I'm a new PhD at a big research lab and found it super helpful that in my first week of work multiple people explained to me that a major part of my job is efficiently picking other people's brains instead of reinventing wheels, and that they don't expect me to have the wealth of knowledge of someone who's 20 years further along in their career; they're looking for potential and communication skills when deciding who to keep around. Otherwise, I would have some of the same insecurity that is driving your coworker's annoying behavior. (But I would toil in isolation instead of asking for help.) So...whose job is it to explain that to your coworker?
posted by ecsh at 2:47 PM on March 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Sometimes I accidentally say something like that when actually I mean, "That makes sense to me."
posted by tresbizzare at 3:04 PM on March 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

Sometimes I say that because it *was* what I was thinking.

Anyway, I'd just not take any notice.
posted by tel3path at 3:13 PM on March 27, 2013

I say stupid things when I'm processing an answer. Sometimes "that's what I was thinking" just means "okay, I was at least on the right path there and not as wrong as I feared". Sometimes it means "I heard the thing you just said and am putting it away somewhere right now".

It pretty much never means GOTCHA I'M SMARTER THAN YOU, so maybe take it with a grain of kindness.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:39 PM on March 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I do this too when I don't want to look stupid. I didn't realize that it makes other people think I'm a know-it-all. I just wanted to seem less dumb!
posted by 3491again at 3:42 PM on March 27, 2013

People do this all the time, and I think it's often the truth. When you're not sure you understand, sometimes you want to hear what the person will say if you don't tell them what you think. In other words, sometimes you feel like you'll get a better answer to the question, "What's the process for A and B?" than the question "The process for A and B would be C, right?" If you're genuinely checking yourself, it's a perfectly logical thing to do. And then you say, "Right, that's what I thought." You say you're not getting a "thanks" without an "of course"? Like, "Oh, of course, thanks," that would bug you? That seems ... like a pretty tight standard. I think all these (especially the "duh") are more "right, silly me" than anything.

I think it's less that your workplace has given you few coping mechanisms than that your workplace has maybe gotten you a little out of the habit of remembering that workplaces are full of people, and if this is the worst annoyance you're running into, you're still doing really, really exceptionally well. I'd try hard not to sweat it; this strikes me as a very minor thing where strategizing to fix it is assigning it more importance than it needs to have.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 3:59 PM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

He's trying to balance the fact that he needs to ask for an explanation with the need to have people think that he's smart. He doesn't want you to think less of him for asking.

It's also possible that he's used that phrase so long he doesn't even realize he's said it or that there are alternatives. It's a catch phrase.

My students do this all the time after I've answered a question. And usually, they really DID know it, but forgot until the explanation jogged their memory. Also, the DON'T LOOK STUPID mental voice is appeased.

They also say "we were just testing you." I just roll with it and ask how I did. :)
posted by rakaidan at 4:17 PM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Perhaps your explanations were not as concise as they could have been?
Are you "over explaining" and assuming your colleague hasn't got the elementary stuff down, and going through that before getting to the point?

I am an impatient person who dislikes being talked down to, and I have said things like what you are explaining in these types of situations.
posted by thirdletter at 4:57 PM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have a coworker who, if you ask him a question, answers in the most patronizing and belittling manner possible.

No one ever thanks him for his help; more often, they say "that makes sense" or "that's what I thought." Because after someone makes you look foolish, you don't want to thank them.

So you might want to look a little more closely at your tone and demeanor before assuming a bad attitude on the new guy's part.

On preview: what thirdletter said.
posted by punchtothehead at 5:35 PM on March 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

Some people can also just be overexplainers by nature. One of my coworkers is like that. He had to teach a few classes at my work recently--I worked with him closely for a decade and I was trained by him, so I knew what to expect. Everyone else didn't and they were glazing over with boredom because he kept showing example after example and recapping and just making VERY VERY SURE THEY GOT ALL THE MATERIAL.

I would suggest tactfully cutting him off with a "I know what Y and Z are already, I just needed to know X. Thanks so much! I've got a meeting to go to!" or some such.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:13 PM on March 27, 2013

Point it out to him before you spend X minutes getting there: "Every time I explain something, it turns out you already knew the answer by the time I got done explaining! I'm happy to help if you need it, but I wonder if you already know the answer to this one, too. What do you think the answer/next step/best choice is?"
posted by juliplease at 8:11 PM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Honestly, I think if you're letting a minor little mannerism like this get under your skin you should check yourself first. A little bit of tolerance goes a long way.

This person doesn't even sound like a know-it-all. They're most likely just feeling a bit insecure and the "oh yeah that's what I was thinking" is a way of saving face.
posted by Broseph at 2:43 AM on March 28, 2013

Please don't do what juliplease is suggesting for the reasons Eicats is describing. This sounds like a person who doesn't want to look stupid but still wants to do things correctly. The "Duh" response proves it, as far as I am concerned. The "Duh" was almost definitely directed at themselves for not knowing it, not at you. Calling them on their lack of knowledge will make them extremely uncomfortable and not want to ask questions of anyone... ever. Unless this person is obnoxious and using what you explained to them to some how screw you over or get your job, I would just be gracious, reply with "Happy to help" or "No problem" and move on.

Like you say, they are new. They are trying very hard to prove themselves and to look knowledgeable. As time goes on this will almost definitely get a lot less frequent. Until they learn everything they are going to ask questions. Should they be saying "Thank You!"? Yeah, maybe. But I think it would be a total dick move to reply with some sort of passive aggressive "If you always know everything and you're so smart, you should already know this" type answer. Your doing that would be way worse (in my books) than their not saying thank you for your answering their question.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 7:07 AM on March 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm in the camp that thinks you should gently and politely challenge him to participate in this exchange. Like: "X is a really big topic. Tell me what you already know and then what part are you having trouble with?" To which you can then confirm his knowledge and provide the missing parts.

Does it make a difference if the workplace is openly stating that they are a learning environment? I hear that all the time on Grey's Anatomy: This is a teaching hospital; we help each other learn. My last several places were like that. Everyone knew it was ok to ask questions, but it showed more respect if you could phrase your question saying "this is what i've tried so far, and here is where I'm stuck. Can you help me get past it?" rather than just saying "tell me about X".
posted by CathyG at 9:09 AM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

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