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  • Lindy Backues

Tacit Knowledge- The language without words

It may sound a bit strange but – as the Hungarian/British polymath Michael Polanyi use to say – we all know much more than we can tell.


When we step back and ponder the issue, we are forced to confess that our knowledge, our human ability to absorb, to process, and to utilize what we come to understand is truly breath-taking. Books are written, music is composed, computational formulae are fashioned and constructed, and theories are endorsed, and these articulated creations end up before us in all of their beauty and elegance, frequently taking our breath away in the way they help us see things. Each and every one of these types of knowledge relies upon the human ability to write things down, they are couched in our capacity to articulate insights clearly, overtly, and systematically. We simply cannot know songs, movies, novels, or scientific theories unless we reduce them to code and we publish them, thereby broadcasting these discernments to others in some sort of explicit fashion.


But Polanyi, a world-renowned academic in the fields of physical chemistry, of economics, and of philosophy, liked to remind those around him that we know so much more than what we can write down, than we can gather together in terms of data compiled, in terms of knowledge we can articulate and put to words. In fact, Polanyi believed that some of our most profound insights – areas of clarity representing some of the deepest levels of human understanding – defy our ability to clarify how we know what it is we clearly actually do know. In a word, sometimes we just know things, and at those times it might become very hard, if not impossible, for us to describe what it is that we know. But that does not mean we are ignorant.


Polanyi liked to illustrate this with a simple yet profound example. Choose in your mind someone you know well: a spouse, a sibling, a parent, one of your children, or one of your grandchildren. That is, mentally select someone you easily recognize, someone you simply could not mistake for being someone else, no matter how much the other resembled this person dear to you. Let’s say you choose your sister. Now, think about your sister and imagine she is milling about in a room with 500 other people, and imagine that you are given a task of picking her out of the crowd. You do not know what your sister is wearing – this is the first time you are seeing her today – but you of course remain absolutely confident that, given enough time, you will recognize her in the crowd and there will be no mistake. After all, you know what your sister looks like.


Now, turn to a person next to you – someone who does not know your sister, someone who has never met her even once – and assign to that person the same task you just had: this person must find your sister in a crowd of 500 people. You are not permitted to show a photograph of your sister, but you are free to tell this person anything you might wish about her that you like (remember, you don’t know what your sister is wearing).


The question now arises: just how sure are you that the person you just asked to find your sister, who has never once met her but who has been thoroughly briefed as to what she looks like will be able to find her in the room? Of course, your confidence level has gone down a good bit since who knows whether this person can find your sister in that room or not – probably not! But, isn’t that odd? You KNOW what she looks like, and you could find her (because you know), and all you needed to do is tell this new person looking for her what you know, what she looks like. But you simply cannot do that, not in a way that is certain, not in a way that reflects the knowledge you have – even though you do have the knowledge. Once again, ‘…we all know much more than we can tell’!


The way this relates to what we do here at Sober Sidekick is found in the sort of knowledge that we rely upon. Polanyi called this type of knowledge ‘tacit knowledge’, since it is the sort of comprehension that we have that we typically have trouble writing down, trouble putting into words, trouble reducing to sentences or data points. Most academic and professional research efforts are predicated on the fact that if one cannot say it, if it cannot be counted or tabulated, if one cannot (professionally) describe it, one simply does not know it, one simply is not an expert about it. But as we just learned from Polanyi, that simply is not always true.


This is why we rely upon the expert input and opinions and insight made available to us by everyday members of our community, people who have walked the hard road of recovery, people who know what it is like to try and fail and yet try again, people who know what it feels to desperately wish to climb toward a new life where alcohol or other substances do not control each and every day. Our app permits us to go directly to them, to let people in early days of recovery listen to those who are a bit further along who tacitly, implicitly know what the new people to the program are facing. And then, those in the app community are encouraged – even incentivized – to offer advice on things they know that are even deeper than words. While healthcare professionals and recovery specialists have their very special role to play in the journey of recovery, we make the tacit knowledge of our everyday members the backbone of our system. Specifically, and practically, our members know much – tacitly, intuitively, experientially – but often they cannot easily articulate what they know. Without a way of capturing and placing before others these precious insights, information, and feedback (often they do not even realize they have such insight), it is underestimated, it is disparaged, or it sometimes gets completely lost.


Our way of putting the deep and tacit understanding of our members to work in our community is by giving them access to each other, in real time, 24 hours a day, at times when others have need. This precious commodity – this priceless, often overlooked understanding that those in recovery have about the challenges faced by their friends in the recovery community – is not wasted at Sober Sidekick. On the contrary, it is precisely that wonderful treasure that serves as the foundation upon which we have built our entire system. Not surprisingly, it is working, because we are leveraging off of the fact those in our community know much more than they can tell. That knowledge helps lead others to recovery.