Concrete Instructions

The Concrete Instruction Model

This post underpins other posts but may be particularly raw on it’s own.  It’s potentially really dumb and obvious but leads to other important skills later.

What I want you to do is to describe an experience concretely.  The objective test of whether the description is concrete is whether the description can be followed by an anonymous person to produce the same experience.

A few types of bad descriptions:

  • “make breakfast”
  • “I got angry at him”
  • “people should use good manners in the work environment”
  • “learn to play tennis”
  • “get out of the car”

But first – an exercise in knowing what it feels like to have or not have this skill.


The paper folding game

Each participant gets an equivalent white piece of paper.One person stands at the front of the room, facing away from all the other participants so they cannot see what the leader is doing and instructs a few example folds or tear instructions.

“fold the paper in half, then in half again.  Now fold the paper in half a third time, but unfold it.  Now tear off the corner.  Then half tear down the line of the third fold”

No questions should be asked and no one can ask for clarification until the instructions are over.

The participants are to unfold their pages and compare the results.  (bonus points for participants who tried to break the instructions)

If an instruction is concrete and specific enough, the pages will be the same, if not they will be different.

Now imagine the paper is instead instructions for heart surgery.  Or for baking a cake.  The concrete instruction model is telling you to describe your experience so that it can be repeated.

Round 2 is to play again after having explained the process and try to give clear verbal instructions this time.


Make Breakfast

Yea I can do that (as long as it’s an instruction to myself) but can you do what I would do?  Not with this instruction.  Not unless you have watched me make breakfast the same way several times before and expect to repeat that again.

In the case where it does not matter how to make breakfast, it may not be necessary to say anything more other than to give the idea of what happened without being specific.  However if you are teaching someone how to make breakfast it’s important to say more.  (the milk, the cereal, the bowl…)


I got angry at him.

Does this imply an internal state of anger?  An external state of loud voice, speaking fast, storming out of the room. Which external factor does this imply?  Can someone replicate your “angry at” experience by this instruction.  What are you trying to impart and is this description concrete and specific enough to impart what you want to impart?


People should use good manners in the work environment 

So what does this mean.  Does this mean the rather extended, “I NOTICED YOU DID AN ACTION THAT SEEMED LIKE IT WAS NOT CONSIDERATE BUT I WANT TO NOT BE SPECIFIC WITH WHAT THAT WAS AND INSTEAD IMPART A GENERAL IDEA OF THE USE OF GOOD MANNERS IN THE WORKSPACE AROUND ME AND ASSUME IF YOU UNDERSTAND THAT THEN YOU WILL TAKE ACTION TO BE MORE CONSIDERATE IN MY ENVIRONMENT”
Or does it mean the general sentiment and tautological “good manners are good”.


Learn to play tennis (see the book: the inner game of tennis)

It’s funny because I can’t impart you the idea of how to learn, in a short sentence space.  I can only point to other things, like “go get a teacher and listen to what they say and do that”.  Or otherwise use some words to put off the “explanation” to later.  See also: Fake explanations, Applause lights, Occam’s razor.


Get out of the car
Well um.  http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/04/21/universal-love-said-the-cactus-person/

Or if we were talking about the normal getting out of a car – your average person would be fine to follow that instruction for all relevant purposes.


All I want to impart is “be concrete and specific”.  Have the skill to be able to describe exactly what happened stepwise without advanced evaluations of experience.

Have a short simpson clip that emphasises the concrete experience over the evaluation (Bart saying, “how could this happen” as an evaluation, Millhouse describing what happened)

The ability to provide stepwise experience is a process of breaking down your experience for the communication to a system 2.

Concrete recount is a step on the way.

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