My clients are clever. They are successful in business because they know stuff that their own clients don’t. Not to put too fine a point on it.
So they get worried when they bump into someone who they think knows more than them. When I’m working with them on subjects such as Presenting, Effective Meetings or Consulting Skills, the subject of “how to deal with the experts in the room” often comes up. (When we drill down we often find that what they mean by an “expert” is simply someone with more grey hair than them, who has been there and done that – the “good old oil boys” as the energy consultants I work with in Houston call them.)
Because they worry about being exposed, several unhelpful behaviours then come into play:
- Talking too much (and trying to minimise the possibility of questions)
- Pretending to know things when they don’t
- Over preparing
- Trying to control things using a tight plan or even script.
This can then cause the client to be frustrated, and the “expert” in the room will quite often show this frustration by being difficult in some way (asking awkward questions, raising objections – anything to prove that this smartarse isn’t quite so smart as he or she thinks he or she is).
All this can be very stressful, and lead to mistrust and damage to the relationship.
There is a much better way to do this. I have learnt it from 16 years of training rooms full of people who are way more expert than me, know their business far better, and in many cases with whom I have had little or no previous engagement.
The best way to deal with an “expert” is to acknowledge that they are an expert before they have to prove it to you. If you do this correctly and at the right time (ie the beginning), you can turn them from the unseen enemy into a personal ally.
Whether you’re leading a meeting, making a presentation, facilitating or consulting, find a way in the opening moments to get your own version of this into the room:
“Clearly there is more expertise in this room than there could ever be in my head, and whilst I have my own contribution to make here, I’d like to ensure we use our combined knowledge and experience today to our mutual benefit. So please feel free to add and contribute to the discussion as we go through.”
You have now acknowledged the power in the room, and just as a little dog, when meeting a big dog, will often roll on its back, tail wagging and saying “Hello Big Dog, my, what a big tail and fine looking teeth you have!”, you have shown respect to the group and equalised the balance of power.
It’s hard not to reciprocate when someone does that, and the majority (not all – there are some egomaniacs who for whatever reason will always want to show off) of people in the room will now be on your side. You can work on the topic together as a room of Adults, not one Parent (you) trying to impress a bunch of increasingly Childlike and sceptical teenagers.
It does require a bit of courage, as it means letting down your guard. But then Trust always requires someone to take a risk to make the first move, and usually the other party will then match it. It’s part of that Leadership quality called Controlled Disclosure: putting your vulnerability out there and being Authentic. People normally appreciate that, and will welcome the absence of any fragrance of bullshit.
One final thought: people who are scared of “experts” worry about being asked questions to which they may not have the answer. To overcome this they tell people to keep their questions until the end of their Presentation. How stupid is that? What if the question is because they didn’t understand something (because you didn’t explain it well enough)? “Hang onto that feeling of confusion for the next 40 minutes, and make sure you tune out as well and do some emails, because now the rest of this won’t make any sense either.”
Durrr. Let those questions in: they energise the audience and take the pressure OFF you if you handle them well enough (recognising that there 6 options open to you, only one of which involves YOU in answering it there and then – subject of another Blog, I reckon.)
For the avid readers among you, there are two books which are highly relevant to today’s theme: “Beyond Reason: using emotions as you negotiate” by Roger Fisher deals with how to handle power, and “Why should anyone be led by YOU?” by Rob Goffee is about the Leadership behaviours I mentioned (and was the best book on leadership I had read in years when I first came across it).
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