How to be collaborative and still be the expert

Experts are more credible when they collaborate with their clients and customers. The fact that they know a lot about their field does not mean they don’t need to listen. True experts strike a balance between teaching and listening. 


Credible communication is collaborative, even when you’re the expert

It’s a balance

It’s a communication nightmare when you give advice and people finish your sentences for you, tell you what you meant to say and hijack your conversation with so many questions that it takes you off track. Do you ever wish people would just shut up and do what you tell them?

Be careful what you ask for. You just might get it. It’s also a communication nightmare when people do what you say without understanding, dismiss what you say but pretend they’re listening or when they do what you say with understanding, knowing that your information is wrong.

There’s a perfect balance between blind compliance and obstinacy that allows for great communication. Great communicators invite that balance. Great communicators trust their knowledge enough to dialogue. Weaker communicators block sincere listener’s efforts toward clarification. Like Janet did with Wanda.

The fallacy of expecting blind trust

Wanda is a smart, passionate and inquisitive leadership trainer. Janet is an experienced, competent and directive branding coach. Wanda hired Janet, and is generally pleased with the results, but there’s one fly in the ointment. Wanda likes to ask questions, and Janet feels challenged by those questions. Janet has told Wanda to “trust the process” at least five times, which Wanda finds inhibiting.

Janet has developed a coaching system that generally works for her. Systems are tremendously useful…as long as we remember that the systems exist for people, not the other way around.

I am sympathetic to Janet’s point from my own experience. I’ve taught the same conflict management seminar over four-hundred times, and I know what works. I begin by laying a foundation of tools to answer every question participants throw at me. When people ask questions before I lay a foundation, I invite them to defer their questions. Some who don’t “trust the process” consider my deferral to be dismissive.

While I could blame them for not respecting my system, I’m better off adapting to personal concerns and exploring why I haven’t won their trust.

Address undermining circumstances

There could be external circumstances that inhibit trust. I experienced this when the Department of Defense brought me in for three days of Conflict Management Training because employee hostility had led to violence. The group considered me punishment and did not want to attend. I was able to defuse that situation on the first break by asking an employee I thought was influential,

I get the impression you wield a lot of authority in this group. This training could be fun and valuable if people are open. I think if people see you showing interest, they will show interest too. What can I do to make the training better for you?

My target participant didn’t have any requests, but he participated openly after that, and so did the general group.

If you manage someone who was a contender for your job, they might have subtle – or not so subtle – resistance. Whenever there are undermining circumstances, address them.


Adapt your style to the people you communicate with. My core message is the same when I speak to Joyce Meyers Ministries as it is when I speak to Quantico Marine Base or IBM Canada, but I tailor my approach to my audience. Consider and adapt to the styles of the people you speak with. Some people have to ask questions, and others don’t. Some like stories and others don’t. Some like statistics and others don’t. What works with some people won’t work with others.

If in doubt, ask

If you detect a lack of trust, it’s up to you to gain that trust. You don’t have to do it alone. Ask:

What can I do to help you trust this process?

That’s what Janet needs to do to adapt her approach to Wanda’s learning style. If she did, Wanda would tell her:

When you tell me what to do, please tell me why as well. For example, instead of telling me to take out one of my classes on my brochure, tell me why. If you tell me it’s to create white space, I’ll know how to use your advice.

If Janet and Wanda could have that conversation, their work together would be much more productive. The people you manage, coach and teach can help you figure out what they need to be receptive to you.

The ultimate credibility booster – great personal answers to serious questions

All the preceding tips will help your credibility, but one thing will cause it to skyrocket. Provide great personal answers to serious questions. If people don’t trust you enough to let the process unfold, it could be that you haven’t responded to their questions in a compelling way. When you listen and reply to questions in a way that satisfies your listener, your credibility soars.

Credible communication is collaborative, even when you’re the expert

It’s not enough to know what you’re talking about. Subject expertise doesn’t make you a great teacher or coach. When you encounter resistance, get personal. Find out how you can make the soil more fertile for listening. It could be the soil is already fertile, you just need to know how to best plant your seeds.

Even when you are the clear expert, communication is a collaborative experience. And when you’re not afraid to get personal when you share your knowledge, you will be far more effective.

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