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  • Wendy Lynch and Clydette de Groot

The expert trap. Our advice – don’t give advice!

Everyone loves to share what they know—especially about their favorite topics or things they’re good at. I know I do. Ask me about the Colorado mountains and I can’t resist telling you more than you ever wanted to hear (Apologies to those whose conversations I have kidnapped in the past).

Whether it’s business (software, project management, training) or pleasure (travel, photography, cooking), each of us has a cherished subject or a special expertise we love to share.

But having expertise also has a downside. When we’ve “seen it all,” it’s easy to make assumptions and jump ahead to likely solutions. After being part of program evaluation efforts for the better part of three decades, when someone describes their project my mind drifts to common pitfalls and typical goals. Rather than listening for what might be unique and important for this person in this setting, it’s tempting to recite criteria for best-practices or provide a checklist of important considerations.

In Get to What Matters, we call this the expert trap. Because we have experienced a situaiton so many times before, we presume we know the solution. Instead of listening and paying attention, it’s easy to jump to what we know.

Most of the time when someone “asks” for advice, they really want one of three things:

  • To express emotion (perhaps frustration),

  • To get reassurance, or

  • To find a safe place to think things through.

Giving them an answer—our advice—stops their thinking. What they really need is a sounding board.

When we resist the temptation to be the expert (by listening, prompting and learning about someone else’s situation) it helps that person figure out what matters right here right now. More often than not, it becomes clear that our expertise may not have fit their needs. They have their own best answer, one they own.

Once someone has thoroughly explored their situation and together we’ve reached a common understanding of their needs and objectives, there may be room for our ideas. Now the other person knows what matters, has had a chance to explore their ideas, concerns and hopes and are ready to hear other thoughts. “Expertise” we offer now will be more pertinent to the other person’s unique circumstances.

To be clear, sharing one’s experience at the right time can be extremely valuable—avoiding potential problems or offering alternatives to consider. But when we switch to expert mode too quickly, we miss out on another’s unique knowledge of the situation, and quite possibly misinterpret what the conversation is really about.

Avoid the expert trap. And next time you see me, think twice before asking me about Colorado.

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