Saturday, February 15, 2014

For Powerful Messaging, Believe Everyone Is An Expert At Something

Here's a counter-intuitive communications principle:

Be humble to be heard.

Read on to find out why this applies to any message you want to convey.

The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition is a widely-used construct in education.  Basically, it's a tool for understanding how people learn.  Its five levels of mastery are usually depicted in a pyramid, as shown here.  (Google searches will yield hundreds of articles on the Dreyfus model.  To check out the real deal -- a summary by Dreyfus himself -- click here.)

As a corporate trainer, I use this model to develop learning programs.  But it's also a very useful tool for understanding  how to do basic communication.  And it all relates to the human ego.

Let me put it to you in the form of a question:

What would you rather be known as: an expert, or a novice? 

Of course, you would much rather be considered an expert.  So would anyone.  People don't like to feel stupider than the next person.  

And there is the first problem of communications.  

Consider this: when you are speaking about a subject, it's probably because you know about it.  In fact, you probably have a knowledge base about that subject that is superior to that of the other person to whom you are speaking.  That's why you're talking about it, right?

It feels good to talk about something you know about.  You have all the power. You feel like the expert.  

This means that the other person is perilously close to feeling stupider than you.  Even as he is trying to absorb your message, your listener is (at some level) resenting the fact that you can currently feel like the expert, and he can't.  It's a huge problem for his typical human pride,and a huge emotional distraction. 

Good communicators know: resentment fuels resistance.  Your message won't get across if your words are being drowned out by an undercurrent of internal emotional static.  Don't believe me?  Think back to that smug seventh grade science teacher or that pompous college professor in your past -- the one who made you feel like you were being "talked down to."  Remember anything positive, inspiring or life-changing about that class?  I didn't think so. Chances are the only thing you do remember is feeling disgusted about being made to feel stupid.

Fast forward to adulthood.  The "I feel stupider than you and I don't like it" syndrome is still alive and well -- maybe more so, because due to their achievements so far, most adult learners feel some sense of competency.  When they are put back in the Novice position, as when asked to learn a new skill at work, they tend to squirm with rebellion.  In such scenarios, their radar is quick to discern, or invent, a condescending attitude on the part of the expert in the room.  If they do, there goes their attention.

If you want to be a good communicator, you need to defuse this distraction. Hence the power of humility.  

How exactly do you use humility to combat this problem?  You share your Expert status by granting your audience the power to be experts, too.  

My favorite way to do this is to get my intended listeners to expound on their own expertise, before I even mention my own. 

In my computer systems training classes for health insurance claims investigators, I know many of my learners are already at the Expert level in many aspects of industry knowledge. However, they may be only Novices in the computer system to be taught. No wonder they are uncomfortable. People don't want to check their credentials at the door and go back to the bottom of the competency scale.

I defuse this discomfort right away with a simple ice-breaker discussion.   Here's my game plan for how to do it, in case it might be useful for you.

Class Opener Activity: Everyone's An Expert

  1. Start with a simple round-robin question: "How long have you been with the company?"  Then ask follow up questions to help each person give a quick summary of their work history. 
  2. Respond to each learner's story by identifying, and expressing respect and appreciation for,  their areas of skill competency, proficiency, or mastery.  (See the Dreyfus model illustration above.) 
  3. As the discussion progresses, seed in comments that emphasize  the rapid pace of change in your profession, and the many opportunities all have had to learn and grow. 
  4. When everyone has finished introducing themselves, state today's class objectives. Ask them to review those objectives and think about how today's training will have applications to all of their work specializations going forward.  Invite them each to contribute knowledge and real-life examples from their areas of expertise as the class proceeds.  Say, "I hope we can all learn from each other today" (once again acknowledging their Proficient or Mastery level in some subjects).
  5. Finally, state that the skills focused on in class today may be new to many learners (tacitly defining them as being at Novice level), but these skills represent another opportunity for them  to stay ahead of the curve in your competitive industry.  Quote that great anonymous quote: "If you're not learning, you're becoming obsolete."  Praise them for already showing by their different career paths that they are excellent learners.  

I find that this is a great way to help professionals feel more at ease with learning new content that is outside their comfort zone.

In larger groups, or if time is pressing, I often revise the activity to a simple round-robin question where I ask learners to rate their industry knowledge on a scale of one to ten.  I then acknowledge their expertise collectively.  It's the same principle, but it compresses the time element.  

Either way, the outcome is the same.  Paying homage to my professional learners' existing high level of knowledge and skill gives three advantages:

1. It defuses the "I feel stupider than you" problem and secures their emotional buy-in; 
2. It sets expectations for their engagement as peers, not inferiors;
3. It leads to a more positive classroom experience for all.  

When I introduce a complex systems training topic this way, initially-resistant learners end up not only learning the material themselves, but forging alliances with other classmates to help each other develop strategies for its application and move quickly out of the Novice level.

No one is a know-it-all.  But everyone is a know-it-some.

Be intentionally humble, and share the expertise spotlight with your audience.  In the end, it will tear down the barricade of resentment, and clear your communications pathway so that optimal learning can take place. 

Want to leverage the Dreyfus model to succeed at your next messaging task?  Find a way to acknowledge your audience's innate worth and competency.  

Respect your learners.  Share your Expert status.  Believe everyone is an expert at something -- even if it's just an expert at being themselves.

Or, to put it more simply: 

Be humble to be heard.