How to Have an Aha! Moment: The Trio Exercise Yield Insight

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September 2013
by Charles Kiefer and Malcolm Constable

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We are all born with the capacity for insight, a capacity that remains with us our entire lives. Insights are those “Aha!” moments when the clouds part and the solution to your problem arises right in front of you. They happen when fresh new light is spread on a subject you’ve considered for some time.

While the circumstances in which people have their insights are as varied as the individuals, everyone we have talked with has reported a common state of mind. It’s an easygoing, unpressured, open, and ungripped state. The more often you reside in this state of mind, the more often you will have insights.

One of the most popular exercises we use with our clients involves two people helping a third have insights into a problem or topic of interest. Here’s how it works.

The Preparation

Find two people who are interested in helping you have an insight on a particular issue. While preferable, it is not necessary that the participants have knowledge or training in our system of Insight Thinking.

You may be surprised to learn that it is generally better if the two people do not know much about the topic that you are bringing to the table.

Begin by describing what an insight is to you and how you feel when you have an insight. All three participants should engage in this conversation, trying to speak with fresh thoughts and staying in a quiet mind. Don’t describe a moment of insight that you have thought about dozens of times before. Do mention any thought that feels new and fresh.

Ask one of the listeners to monitor allotted times or set an alarm using a watch or phone.

The Exercise

Part 1. The speaker describes an issue in 60 seconds or less while the other two people listen quietly. They should remain completely silent and refrain from asking any questions. For this part of this exercise, the listeners face their chairs toward the speaker.

Part 2. After the 60 seconds or after the speaker has finished (whichever comes first), the listeners should swivel their chairs to face each other (preferably with the speaker out of their line of sight).

The listeners in this part should be looking for a good feeling, not barking out the first thought that comes to mind. In fact, the period allotted for sharing fresh thoughts begins in a silence that lasts until a light bulb flashes for one of the participants.

Now, participants begin to reflect on the topic that was just described. The purpose here is to spend five minutes sharing only fresh thoughts on the subject. Each time either listener has a truly fresh thought about it, that listener shares it with the other listener while being “overheard” by the speaker.

Bear in mind that the purpose is neither to solve the problem nor to give advice, both of which will bring everyone back to memory thinking. Rather, it is to generate fresh thought around the subject and help facilitate an insight in the speaker. If a memory thought must be spoken to get it out of the way, the person who voices it should identify it while voicing it and then move back into fresh thoughts.

The speaker, throughout this part of the exercise, sits aside. Despite the instinct to analyze, correct, or dismiss what the others are saying, the speaker must remain quiet and look for fresh thoughts and insights, perhaps jotting down on a notepad the thoughts that seem particularly fresh.

The speaker must also be careful not to judge the listeners based on their lack of knowledge or experience in the subject. People with a lifetime of relevant experience often have profound insights into their business based on a simple remark from someone in a completely unrelated field of expertise.

Part 3. After the listeners have spent five minutes sharing their fresh thoughts on the subject, the speaker may step back into the mix and comment on the experience.

The speaker should now take two minutes or less to report any new insights that may have occurred during the exercise and comment on what it was like listening to the others discuss the topic using only fresh thinking.

After the speaker has described that experience, the listeners should join the conversation and describe what the experience was like for them. In this last part, everyone should continue to speak only from fresh thoughts and avoid giving advice, and the speaker should talk only around 10 percent of the time.

The tendency will be for the speaker to talk as much as, if not more than, the two listeners, but this should be avoided to get the best value from the exercise.

The three parts form one complete round of the trio exercise. If you like, at this point you can switch the role of speaker and repeat the exercise using a new topic.

This exercise works wonderfully when people follow the structure closely. By offering a very brief description of the problem (perhaps even in 30 seconds instead of 60) and then stepping aside, speakers should be able to remove themselves from a setting where in most cases they would be inclined to hijack the discussion.

This counteracts our tendency to jump in and correct the line of thinking when we hear people talking about something that we have a stake in or consider personal, by guiding it back toward the direction we originally had in mind. As soon as we start leading the conversation, listeners are inclined to follow and the result is that everyone gets on the same page, curtailing the likelihood of anything fresh.

Not My Problem?

Recently, one of us (Charlie) participated in the exercise described above. Here’s how it felt from the inside.

“I had a group of executives participating in this trio exercise, and I decided to join in as the third member of one of the groups. Lately, I had been dealing with a project I had been working on with a number of other people. At the time, it seemed to me that a good number of them were simply not doing their jobs. The result was that I ended up having to step in and pull things together so that everything that needed to get done would get done. I was in a low mood about the whole situation, and it looked like it was going to be hours of more work for me.

“I explained this in 30 seconds to my two partners. They turned toward each other, and right away I knew that they got it. They are managers, so they know what it’s like when the people who are supposed to be doing their work aren’t doing it. But almost immediately, they began to get off track and started talking about moving houses and whose job it is to unpack after a move, the husband’s or the wife’s.

“I was doing my very best to drop the one thought that was continually coming back into my head: ‘There’s no relationship whatsoever between their discussion and my problem.’ A moment later I thought, ‘They’re not talking about my problem at all.’

“I wasn’t getting riled up about the fact that what they were saying wasn’t relevant; in fact, I was in a relatively good state of mind because that was one of the guidelines I had set up, and I wanted to be a quality participant in the exercise.

“Then I thought, ‘Whatever they’re talking about, it’s not my problem!’ And all of a sudden it hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks: ‘This isn’t my problem. It’s not my problem; it’s the project leader’s problem. And it’s her job. She’s just not doing it.’

“My problem had vanished. All I had to do for it to completely disappear was to write an email that pleasantly said, ‘These things aren’t getting done, and they are your job, not mine.’ It was absolutely magnificent. The issue disappeared even before the email was written—gone in the space of a thought. And of course, the truth of the matter was that I was the one who needed to be reminded even more than my colleagues on the project.”

Probably the most common time that we want an insight is when we have a problem and need a solution. Most of us have had an insight that solves a problem, and then our very next thought is about why we didn’t think of it earlier. If you look closely, implicit in this statement is that the solution was there for some time, but you just didn’t see it. Since the solution was available the whole time, your problem wasn’t really the problem. The problem was that you needed a way to see the solution.


Charles Kiefer and Malcolm Constable are the authors of The Art of Insight: How to Have More Aha! Moments, from Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., and this article is excerpted from that book. Kiefer founded Innovation Associates, which serves as the base for his work on insight and entrepreneurial thinking. Constable interned at and later joined Insight Management Partners, founded by Kiefer and Robin Charbit. To learn more: bkconnection.com.

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