The Importance of Explaining and Describing

It’s hard to picture the future, let alone predict what could possibly happen. Our default mode is to look at the past and find something similar that either describes or explains why something happened. This distinction – between describing and explaining* – is the key to helping ourselves, our clients, and our teams look forward.


Let’s say the kids want to go out for ice cream and anxiety suddenly sets in.


Describe: We picture the last time we went out. We see the ice cream all over their faces, their clothes, and the inside of our car. We see the extra baths, the extra load of wash, and the extra stop to get the car detailed. It’s a vivid memory. 


Explain: We think about how we decided to go right around bedtime, how the kids were already over-tired, and how the mix of fun and exhaustion is inherently unstable (at the nuclear level). We really needed the treat for ourselves, but we paid for it dearly. Curse you chocolate chip cookie dough in a waffle cone.


Good AND bad reactions to any idea of the future are always based on these two categories. When we’re communicating our description and explanation to someone else, we have to be extra sensitive to the description and explanation their brain will inherently provide. Talk to any parent about an ice cream trip with the kids, and there’s a story. Talk to any client about some international investment opportunity, and there’s at least some type of feeling that we need to know about before we move forward. 


We still have to strategize, but then we have to ask and listen. Once we unpack the description and explanation behind a reaction, we can set about clarifying and aligning the details with a desirable outcome. If we help people picture the future they want, then we can help get them there in one piece. Risk for ice cream related mishaps along the way: optional.


*attribution and inspiration for this idea are from Duncan Watts’ book “Everything is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer).”