A Learning Technique Inspired by Computer Hackers

Malicious hackers commonly use a technique called the 'man-in-the-middle attack'. In that attack, the bad guy interposes himself between two people who are trying to communicate, eavesdrops on their communications, and potentially alters their messages. For example, let's say Adam is hanging out at a coffee shop when he remembers that he needs to email detailed wire transfer instructions to his new investor, Barbara. If Chuck hacks into the wireless router, he can intercept Adam's email, insert his own bank account details, and forward the altered email on to Barbara. Since Adam and Barbara don't know there's someone monitoring and modifying their communications, they won't realize they're being duped until Barbara's money is in Chuck's bank account.

Hackers use the man-in-the-middle attack for evil, but you can use it for good whenever you introduce two people to each other. The type of introductions I'm referring to are where one person with a specific question is introduced to another person who might be able to answer that question. For example: 

These introductions are useful for the people who need help, but they also present a golden opportunity to learn something interesting. Here are two man-in-the-middle approaches that I've personally used to learn about a variety of topics:

Listen and Repeat

Sometimes you can circumvent an introduction by forwarding a question from person 1 to person 2, then passing person 2's answer back to person 1. This works well for questions that don't require a lot of additional context.

Example

Before:

"John, meet Jane. Jane can help you with setting up an accounting system for your small business."

After:

Step 1: Email John -- "Hey John, what kind of questions do you have about setting up an accounting system?"

Step 2: Email Jane -- "Hey Jane, my friend John is setting up a small business and has the following questions about accounting. Do you have any advice that I can pass along to him?"

Step 3: Email John -- "Hey John, one of my friends is an accountant and I sent her the questions that you had. She said..."

A Fly on the Wall

Introduce two people and ask if you can sit in on their discussion. This works well for open-ended topics where you won't be able to provide enough context to use the "Listen and Repeat" approach.

Example

Before:

"John, meet Jane. Jane can help you with setting up an accounting system for your small business."

After:

"John, meet Jane. Jane can help you with setting up an accounting system for your small business. Once you two decide on a time to talk, I'd love to join you if you don't mind. I, too, am interested in learning about accounting systems."


The next time that you're about to introduce two people, think about whether the topic they'll be discussing is personally interesting to you. If it is, turn the introduction into a learning opportunity.

Tags: Learning

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