Why is interviewing experts so darn hard?
You do your research. Read background materials, check out the expert.
But you’re still in unknown terrain. Navigating unmarked paths and dodging pot holes. Oh, and the occasional road block.
You know you’ve hit rough ground when the expert is surprised you don’t get it.
There’s tension because neither person understands the other.
But, what if you had an aerial view of this tricky terrain? A view of how the land lies? An insight that transforms your conversations?
So you feel more in control. There’s less frustration. And yes, you enjoy it more.
So what do you need to know? What’s the big revelation?
You need to understand why the expert looks surprised. Because once you do, your struggles make perfect sense. The ‘why’ is the cornerstone to transforming your conversations. Once you’ve grasped the ‘why’, you can tackle the ‘how tos’ from a solid foundation.
Why experts are puzzled when you don’t understand
Take a look at this cartoon.
What’s going on here?
The policeman knows the route. He wants to help. So why can’t he get his message across? Why is the tourist confused?
The cop knows every bend in the road and landmarks along the way. In his head it’s crystal clear.
But here’s the problem.
He unconsciously assumes everyone has the same mental images. So he leaves out details he takes for granted. And what the tourist hears is muddled and confusing.
But the cop is puzzled that he doesn’t get it.
Experts are cursed by their knowledge
Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed us’. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.
So what can we learn from the policeman’s failed directions?
Experts are like the policeman who’s walked the same beat for years. Because experts have assimilated years of knowledge and experience, which they too take for granted.
And like the policeman, when experts talk to novices they omit details that seem blindingly obvious; they miss out steps that spell out the logic. Without realising, experts leave out the information you need most to understand their subject.
No matter how willing, experts can’t always give you the right information. Because they don’t know what novices need to get it.
Maybe you’re thinking:
So experts steeped in their subject and masters of their skill can’t explain it to beginners? Not so smarty pants after all.
Stop right there. Time to delve a bit deeper.
Why experts don’t know what they know
The path from novice to expert is complex.
Tom Gram, a Learning and Performance Consultant, breaks the journey into these stages.
So how are novices different from experts?
Novices deal in explicit knowledge facts and information, which is easy to talk about – know-what.
But experts deal more in tacit knowledge. The sum total of what they have learnt from experience, formal and informal learning, which is hard to articulate– know-how.
Why is know-how hard to explain?
Because we don’t remember the details of our own learning path from novice to expert.
Here’s an example.
The novice chess player can talk about the board, the rules and how the pieces move – know-what.
On the journey to expert – advanced beginner, competent and proficient – the player gains a wealth of knowledge and experience: tactics, managing time, calculating a sequence of moves, visualising a plan and strategy. The sum total of this becomes know-how. Much of which is now intuitive.
But they’ve forgotten the myriad steps it took to master each skill.
- The advanced beginner watches videos on repeat and his insights develop his tactics
- The competent player reflects on a failed sequence of moves and is forced to tweak it
Each new refinement becomes part of how they play. Over time, they forget the insights and thought processes that changed their game. What they’ve learnt gets filed away. This essential knowledge is simply assimilated into what they do. So experts no longer consciously know what they know. The brain knows more than it reveals.
The stand-off between expert and interviewer
So here’s the rub. The interviewer often needs to understand the essential elements – the stuff the expert explicitly knew or did at the novice, advanced beginner or competent stage – the know-what – in order to understand what the expert implicitly knows now – the know-how. The very thing experts may no longer consciously know they know.
That’s why novices sometimes learn more from the advanced beginner or competent practitioner. Because competent practitioners have more recently learnt what novices need to know/do. So this knowledge is not yet unconscious.
So back to the original problem.
The expert tells you what she knows now. She’s puzzled you don’t understand because she doesn’t realise you need to know the stuff she learnt as an advanced beginner say, to make sense of what she does now.
Take the strain from your expert interviews
All very interesting. I get it. But what can I do about the expert’s curse? I can’t take it away.
I refer you to Theodore Roosevelt – 26th President of USA
The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people.
And that means having empathy for the expert. Understanding how others experience the world is the starting point for productive conversations.
You now know that the Curse of Knowledge is a common cognitive phenomenon that can impact anybody. And that includes you and me.
The inability to set aside something we know but that someone else does not know is such a pervasive affliction of the human mind that psychologists keep discovering related versions of it and giving it new names.
Stephen Pinker, ‘The Sense of Style’. (Thanks also to Stephen for first using the NY cop cartoon to illustrate the Curse of Knowledge.)
It’s easier to relate to someone when you recognise their experience. So it’s time to look at your own curse.
Are you cursed by what you know?
Imagine someone is making a documentary of your professional life or a long-term hobby. They take you back to the end of year one. What did you know? What could you do?
How about three years in? Can you summarise exactly what you knew or could do then? And how you learnt it?
What was the journey that led to your success?
Can you trace the path of insights, process tweaks and skill refinements that took you from advanced beginner to what you do now?
I’m willing to bet not. Because you too have accumulated bags of information and experience you take for granted.
So switch on your empathy. Once you recognise how it is for the expert you can shift how you see your role.
Think or yourself as a midwife à la Socrates. Here’s how he describes teaching.
All I do is assist the birth of knowledge, the birth of understanding of ideas in someone else’s mind. And by helping them in the labour of discovery I make the process of discovery easier for them and less painful.
Your job is to work with the expert to uncover what may be hidden. To assist in the rebirth of unrecognised essential knowledge.
And that take’s empathy. Because we’re all cursed by what we know.