Expert opinion is currently in high demand, with the world facing complex problems that must be solved as quickly as possible. But what separates the experts that are heard from the ones whose opinion is ignored or whose message fails to cut through?
A Development Opportunity for Experts
Experts who have predominantly relied on their knowledge, ideas, experience and insights when providing advice have a unique development opportunity that has the potential to significantly improve the “cut-through” of their message. Research shows that in addition to an expert’s competence (his or her “expertness”), the key contributors to being perceived as a trustworthy expert are integrity (good character and values) and benevolence (orientation toward others).
Let’s focus on the second trait and how it provides experts with a development opportunity. A recent capability initiative involved taking a cohort of 49 specialists from various backgrounds and developing their coaching ability. In their respective fields, these specialists were capable and competent, but they did not have any coaching experience.
Over an 18-month period, they became coaches through coaching, training and mentoring. Selecting the 49 participants involved screening 170 applicants using a half-day role-playing and behavioral interview workshop that assessed each applicant for his or her benevolence, or ability to serve others. This screening enabled the trainers to provide the trainee coaches with techniques to amplify that trait and orient themselves toward the needs of others.
People with the title “coach” aren’t the only ones who coach. Because of the competencies involved in coaching, there is much discussion around the idea of “leader as coach” or “manager as coach.” But we can apply the same thinking to experts as coaches. Experts not only provide opinions but also have to answer questions on the advice they provide. It is here that they can either demonstrate benevolence — or not.
3 Coaching Techniques for Experts
The field of coaching offers experts the opportunity for professionals to build their capability to deliver expert advice with benevolence. By building these capabilities, they can increase their levels of what is called epistemic trustworthiness, which researchers have identified as the missing factor that differentiates the most dependable experts.
Coaches use certain techniques as they converse with others that help orient the coach toward helping others, being kind and having good intentions (benevolence). Anyone can learn and practice these techniques and improve their coaching capabilities.
1. Orienting (to Serve and Help)
Have you ever been listening to someone and felt that they were arrogant and holding you in contempt? That expert was giving advice, but their internal dialogue was dismissive of your thoughts, feelings or considerations.
Orienting is the core technique and compulsory practice that underpins the other two techniques discussed in this article. We all have an internal voice that never stops talking to us. As experts deliver advice and answer questions, they must orient their internal voice toward helping the people they’re talking with.
To practice this technique, experts can use a simple method: Repeat a statement to themselves, or write it down on a sticky note and then read it, prior to and during their advice delivery conversations.
2. Responding (to Questions)
Many experts have a “solution habit”: Since they have amassed deep knowledge, they can provide almost instantaneous answers and solutions to complex, difficult problems. This habit is what they are paid to do — but if they provide reactive answers, they risk not being responsive to their audience.
Taking a moment (even one second) to consider the needs of the person who has asked them a question creates a small gap between the question and the answer. In this gap, experts can use their orientation to serve and their empathy to consider not only what they are about to say but also how they are going to say it. This benevolence will increase their trustworthiness and ability to convey their message.
3. Opening (the Space)
There’s a space between people when they’re communicating. Experts need to not only fill this space with their ideas, thoughts and opinions but also, sometimes, take the time to let others put their ideas into the space. Such two-way exchanges are not always possible, but experts should be aware that there are times to provide input and times to let others speak.
Imagine that two people are communicating, and between them is a six-foot-wide, one-foot-high, circular garden bed filled with pure white sand. Both people are sitting on cushions at the edge of the circular sandpit, and each holds a thin metal stick. A conversation begins, and each person contributes to the conversation by carefully drawing what he or she intends to communicate into the perfectly level sand.
The ideal communication process is for one person to complete the full drawing in the sand that represents his or her contribution and then allow time for the other person to look at it and attempt to make sense of it. If there were a group of people, everyone would have a few minutes to take it in, and then each person could ask clarifying questions. Ideally, there would be time to reset the space and level the sand before another person contributes to the conversation.
This process of allowing people to fully articulate their ideas and then ask clarifying questions is the best way to allow for the encoding and subsequent decoding of messages. Unlike the sandpit example, experts encode their messages into words, gestures and body language during a conversation. The person who is listening has the job of decoding the message. Good communication simply means that the message isn’t lost in translation, and the listener is able to decode it. Experts must have enough self-awareness to know when to stop talking and let other people contribute their thoughts.
These three expert-as-coach techniques are most powerful when used in combination. The next time you are called upon to provide an expert opinion and to orient your mindset to serve, pause before you respond, and maintain your awareness of the communication space you are working within.