Talking Psych to Non-Psychologists – Part 3

Part 3 tackles that practical reality of agency life – acting like an expert from your first day onwards. This article presents three thinking tools for meetings and other situations requiring expertise.

#1 Almost nobody knows what they’re talking about

I remember John Cleese saying this in an interview. It’s pretty liberating once you realise this. Expertise is relative.

Furthermore (more the point Cleese was making) is that so much gets through due to false confidence and confirmation bias. Not just from individuals, but from whole companies, sectors, schools of thought, even countries.

I do not want to suggest that knowledge or training are not essential – or that years of experience do not count – they definitely do. But you must trust your own thinking and your own intuition enough to challenge others. It may just be that it’s like that because no one ever challenged it.

If it doesn’t work out – at least you learned something. I believe this is a crucial trait that we possess – the ability to look at history and say “hey, I think you were doing it wrong” and start all kinds of discussions.

#2 You ARE the expert

If you find yourself in a situation where you are expected to disseminate information to people who don’t know it yet – you ARE the expert.

It is tempting to think of ‘expert’ as being a status – some level that you reach, maybe at some point in your late-thirties-early-forties. For the more confident of you, maybe mid-to-late-twenties. We are taught this as children; that we will specialise… train… learn… until we finally obtain ‘status’. But this isn’t true, expertise is relative.

There is a saying in poker that if you can’t spot the fish (meaning ‘bad player’) at the table, then it’s you. This is a relative rule – if you were once the fish but then improved, you will then be able to see that someone else is the fish. If you then played better players, you might become the fish again.

I prefer to take the optimistic version of the rule, and apply it to other situations:

“If you can’t spot the expert in the room, then it’s you.”

This is not license to start bursting into rooms shouting your opinions – but it is worth keeping in mind, so that you can recognise when you have insight worth the airtime, or when your opinions go up in stock.

If summoning that confidence to voice this recognition is difficult – just remember to trust the lead-up to the situation. Your hirers hired you for a reason. You were assigned to a project for a reason. You were called into a meeting for a reason – and are being asked questions – you guessed it – for very sensible reasons.

#3 Embrace the contradiction of #1 and #2

“Okay, so no-one knows what they’re talking about (including me) but I am the expert – how does that work?” – I hear you ask with an inquisitive tone.

Embracing this contradiction is a way of getting past any anxiety, and avoiding ego becoming anything to do with discussions. It is solved by thinking in relative terms – like the fish at the poker table. The skill we have to master is being mindful of what exactly we are the relative expert on at any moment – and what we’re not. Note that this also requires listening to and understanding others; so we know how we can best contribute.

Another key skill is being able to take our ego out of the room - or better yet get rid of it completely – and realise that we have our own biases and faults. We only know what we are talking about in so far as we have more experience in that domain than most. And ‘more experience’ doesn’t mean ‘always correct’.

This helps us see clearly and realise that everyone involved in a project will be able to bring in different pieces of expertise – hopefully at the right moments – but that nobody stands as an absolute expert; it’s all relative to everyone else.

I have found this mindset to help overcome any tension, signal that it’s okay to ask obvious questions, and be most conducive to solving problems.

Conclusion

  • Listen, ask obvious questions, challenge when you feel like challenging, and act confident
  • Expert is not a status; it is relative
  • Honesty goes a long way – maybe not for egos – but to solving problems
  • We are always learning – or we should be!