I pulled up to my garage one cold 11-degree morning and pressed the button on the garage door opener remote. Nothing happened. Pressed it again. Nothing. So began a just-in-time learning process for me.

After opening and closing the door manually, I called the Subject Matter Expert (SME) I always call when something needs fixing at my house: my Dad. He went out into his own garage and looked at the opener – a similar model to mine – and started to describe the mechanisms to me and what I could do to potentially fix it over the phone…..in great detail and assuming I knew what the parts were called. As I struggled to understand, I asked some questions like, “Do you mean the small piece of metal between the two nuts?” and, “Is that in the motor behind where the light bulb is?”

Later that day, I was at a client meeting discussing how we work successfully with SMEs, and my conversation with my Dad came back to me. I’ve had conversations like this garage-door-trouble-shooting one with him many times, and the process I automatically go through with him to allow me – the novice – to understand him – the expert – applies to working with SMEs in any setting. Here are a few tips that came to mind for working successfully with Subject Matter Experts , whether you’re designing training, receiving coaching, or are a Subject Matter Expert yourself.

  1. Simplify Language – Think of the simplest possible way to describe the content. This varies depending on your audience, so consider what they know. Do you understand what the “automatic capacitor bolt” is? (I hope not, because I just made it up). Would describing it as “a small bolt which goes into slot A” be easier to understand, learn, and remember? Case in point – I don’t recall the first term my Dad used to describe the item later called, “the metal piece between the nuts.”
  2. Go to the First Step, then Rewind – If you’re describing a process, make sure you’re beginning at the very beginning. For instance, if you’re discussing how to use software, have you covered how to access or log in to the system? With my Dad, we made sure to talk about how to re-program the remote for the garage door opener before I could trouble-shoot any fixes. Keep asking, “Is this really the beginning? Do I know what’s needed to start?”
  3. Ask a lot of Questions and Confirm Understanding – Information-gathering should involve good listening, but it should not be a one-way conversation. Ask lots of questions. Ask stupid questions. Say, “Am I getting this right?” and repeat what you just heard. Ask questions about things that might not seem to be the focus of your discussion. For instance, if a SME is explaining a step that includes clicking a button on a screen, ask about other menus or buttons on the screen too…get the complete tour. With my garage door, we made a point of talking about checking to see what kind of spring mechanism was on the opener. Even though the springs weren’t broken, their presence and position made a difference in how I approached the repairs.
  4. Slow it Down – When stepping through content with an expert, be sure to take time to cover each point, step, or concept carefully. With an emphasis on efficient meetings these days, it can be easy to rush through a discussion, constantly looking for “need-to-know” information. However, information-transfers with SMEs are about getting more information than you need, then paring it down later. So set up discussions in a way that allows you plenty of uninterrupted time. Fixing a garage door opener in 11-degree weather brings an urgency of its own, so I made a point of having most of my conversation with my Dad indoors, and putting on many layers when I went outside while talking with him so I wouldn’t be rushing through trying to understand.
  5. Once You’ve Learned it, Describe it to Someone Else – My repair attempts involved a trip to the hardware store on our block. While I wasn’t thrilled to make the trip and spend the money, the experience of explaining the issue to the store clerk so he could help me find the right part was invaluable to cementing my understanding of the mechanism and issue. If you’re an Instructional Designer, you’ll already be doing a version of this by creating some form of learning, but consider explaining key concepts to a colleague before you start developing content…it might make development faster.
  6. Be Humble and Generous – This applies to both the expert and the novice. Keep in mind that both parties have something to learn from the conversation and remind yourself that no one person “knows it all.” Be humble and generous when asking others to explain content to you or when trying to impart understanding of content to someone else. This can require some patience to get the best results. If my Dad had been impatient or frustrated about what I didn’t know and asked me things like, “Don’t you know how that chain works?,” it would have made me start to rush the conversation and not ask as many questions, which could have prevented me from getting the information I needed.

What are your top tips for exchanging information with experts?

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