Ever felt small because you didn’t understand something? Did you feel exposed, humiliated or foolish?
Maybe you feel like this when you interview subject matter experts. Even if they don’t say the words out loud …
‘Really? You don’t understand? I couldn’t have been clearer.’
their body language or tone of voice say the same thing.
Do these conversations trigger negative thoughts?
I’m not smart enough to understand this.
Or maybe you’re irritated.
Why are experts such jerks? He needs to get over himself.
Now imagine this scenario. No matter how the expert reacts you stand tall. No more silent huffing and puffing. Even better, it’s easier to make sense of it all. So you extract the information you need from a cracking conversation.
Want to transform your interviews?
First off, let’s explore why negative emotions derail your conversation. The ‘why’ is the cornerstone to transforming your interviews. Once you’ve grasped the ‘why’, you can tackle the ‘how tos’ from a solid foundation.
Being grumpy or anxious makes it harder to understand & remember information
To understand complex, unfamiliar subjects you need to engage your thinking brain. Not your reactive brain.
The Neurosciency bit
Here’s how Judy Willis MD, Neurologist turned teacher now Neuro-education consultant, explains it.
Your brain filters information to one of two areas:
1) The prefrontal cortex, what we might call the thinking brain, which can consciously process and reflect on information;
2) The lower, automatic brain, what we might call the reactive brain, which reacts to information instinctively rather than through thinking.
The prefrontal cortex is only 17 per cent of your brain; the reactive brain makes up the rest.
So it’s not surprising negative emotions can kick in so quickly and take over.
But how does that get in the way of understanding?
When you are anxious, sad, frustrated, or bored, brain filters conduct sensory information from the world around you in to your reactive brain. These reactive brain systems do one of three things with the information:
ignore it; fight against it as a negative experience (sending signals that may cause you to act inappropriately); or avoid it (causing you to daydream). If information gets routed to this reactive brain, it’s unlikely your brain will truly process the information or remember it.
So how do you move from instinctive negative emotions to a rational, thinking response?
Stop negative emotions derailing your interview
#1 Understand why experts push your buttons
When you understand the expert’s behaviour, it’s easier to keep your unthinking, reactive responses in check.
So why is the expert frustrated when you don’t understand?
The empathy gap
The Curse of Knowledge makes it hard to help others understand. Because we forget what it’s like not to know what we know.
But there’s more to it than that. Experts also forget what it felt like to be a novice. Because the further you move from beginner to expert the more you forget your own struggles to master the basics. So there’s an empathy gap.
It’s why experts can get prickly when you don’t get it.
And it’s what leads to blog post headlines like:
How to interview subject matter experts without annoying them?
Play nicely with subject matter experts
Perhaps you’re thinking – An empathy gap? Really? What kind of psychobabble is this?
Actually, it’s the focus of a Harvard Business School doctoral research.
Ting Zhang’s experiment explores whether you can you can turn back the clock. Can experts rediscover inexperience and the emotions of uncertainty and failure? And does this make them better teachers?
Her underlying question was ‘How do you help experts help novices?’ How can experts beat the Curse of Knowledge?
The experiment: can experts rediscover inexperience?
(This is one part of Zhang’s experiment.)
Step 1: Take your experts back in time
- Skilled right-handed guitarists recorded themselves playing as they usually would for a minute.
- The control group – the rediscovery group – had to flip their guitars around so they strummed with the left hand and formed chords with the right.
No prizes for guessing the rediscovery group said they felt more like beginners.
Step 2: Ask the experts to help novices
- Both expert groups watched a video of a beginner fumbling some chords.
- Then all the expert guitarists wrote down:
- Advice for the novice
- How much they related to their struggle.
Yep you’ve guessed it, the group who had rediscovered inexperience were more empathetic.
But what about the quality of the advice? Well, that’s the next bit of the research.
Step 3: Novices evaluate the expert advice
- 75 beginner guitarists – who didn’t know about step 2 – gave their verdict on the advice.
- The novices preferred the rediscovery group’s advice because it was more:
- Specific and therefore actionable
So now you know experts’ frustration is not personal. It’s not about you. It’s a common emotional response to how the brain works – that we forget our own struggles as beginners.
You may well be thinking:
That’s all very interesting. But how’s some Havard Business School research going to help me deal with a grumpy pants subject matter expert?
A rational explanation for the expert’s behaviour makes it easier to respond rationally. Being objective helps you move away from the self-blame game or keep your irritation in check.
But the pull of the unthinking brain is strong. So when you find yourself swimming in a swampy ‘feelings’ soup you need help getting out. You need tools to override the reactive brain.
Remember when information goes to this lower, automatic brain it ignores, avoids or fights against it.
#2 Play ‘Curse of Knowledge Bingo’ to override your reactive brain
Did you just guffaw?
Maybe you think that ‘bingo’ and ‘thinking brain’ don’t belong in the same sentence.
Time to press the ‘Prejudice Pause’ button and read on.
Playing a game is one way to dispel disruptive feelings.
Robert Sylwester, expert on how brain science impacts education and learning, put it like this.
Emotions simply exist; we don’t learn them in the same way we learn telephone numbers, and we can’t easily change them. But we should not ignore them.
Students can learn how and when to use rational processes to override their emotions, or to hold them in check.
Robert Sylwester Former Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon.
Our rational process is this version of bingo. And the balls are examples of the Curse of Knowledge in action.
Playing a game where you spot the Curse of Knowledge means you engage in the interview on two levels. You are part of the conversation. But you also monitor and observe it. This meta-level interrupts your negative reactions. It helps you adopt a rational response:
Ah, that’s the Curse of Knowledge doing its thing.
Finding evidence of the Curse of Knowledge helps you reframe the expert’s behaviour – from annoying or upsetting to interest in a curious phenomenon of the brain.
Getting curious helps you shift to the thinking brain. It’s hard to be truly curious and grumpy/hurt at the same time.
So ‘Eyes down’, virtual markers at the ready. Here are your Curse of Knowledge bingo balls.
- Experts look at you with surprise when you don’t understand
- They get frustrated with you, rather than with themselves – ‘It’s your problem because I’m being perfectly clear’
- They are not empathetic when you don’t understand
- They use lots of terms you’ve never heard of – and don’t explain them
- They don’t give any real life examples
- They describe the nitty gritty in great detail but don’t explain the big picture – why it’s important, how it helps, why it matters etc
- They talk about things at a high level ie theories and ideas without any examples of how or why it’s used – concrete applications
- They make vague high level statements which raise more questions than answers ie ‘This approach isn’t very meaningful’
(Inspired by Jeremy Esherman’s Bully Bingo)
How many of these did you recognise?
It’s not easy. Changing your instinctive response takes effort. Particularly, when you feel judged in some way.
I write about it because it’s challenging. Sharing and discovering know-how takes work on both sides. And for the novice it starts with overriding our lower automatic brain and its negative reactions.
But shift to your thinking brain and you transform your conversations. Now you’re on the right path for productive expert interviews you actually enjoy.