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Dealing with SMEs (Subject Matter Experts)

What is the easiest and hardest thing in the world? …. A conversation.

As contractors, we have hundreds of them every day, and we succeed because of those conversations. They are an exchange of information, perceptions, and beliefs. When conversations flow well, it is a productive and positive experience, and we enjoy the work we are doing. When conversations are like delayed flight schedules, we experience the anxiety, frustration, and mounting tension. You are probably nodding, because you have experienced both.

I would like to share with you my tricks and tips on how to deal with conversations with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) when you are creating structured and focused training content, which can be digital or live. However, the tips I will share can apply to any scenario where you deal with SMEs and are not limited to the training discipline.

SMEs bring nuance, personal experience, and depth of knowledge and perspective as you create content or extract information from them, but the challenge is that SMEs are not training or facilitation experts. They need to know how to use the stories they tell, trust the facilitation process to bring up learning points, be open and responsive, and so on. They need guidance and support from those involved in the training design to understand the fundamentals of training conversations. But this rarely happens in the real world of work. So how do you work to get the best out of SMEs?

“Often SMEs say, it is my job to deliver content and it is their (the learners) job to understand. This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? (Inward sigh!).

Take my tips with a pinch of salt (Himalayan Pink or Table salt), they do not apply to every situation, but I find myself using these tactics often.

  1. I have found that SMEs flood you with details. They give you more and more information, which you understand less and less. You begin to suspect that what you are getting is resistance and not just an effusive attempt to give you all the facts. Here are ways that I tackle this and not get sidetracked. Sometimes all they need is to vent it out, in which case, respectful silence and attentive listening are gifts you can offer.
    • Pressing for quick turnarounds: Sometimes, SMEs / Managers, once they have shared all the information, right? That’s it, you will wave your fairy wand, and voila! a perfect training slide, digital content, or story would appear. They do not understand the thinking and the design work that goes into it. This can be frustrating and might make you feel like you are under pressure to deliver quickly, even though the SME may not have articulated it in words.
    • Explain your next steps in detail: I always thank the SME for their input and then ask them this question “Would you be keen to know what the next steps from here are?”. The answer is often yes, and I make it a point to share in detail what I must do to convert their information to learners’ content. Sometimes, I share examples of past work that I have done and explain the process. It is not bragging, it is educating. Be confident, you are a SME in your own right and what you offer is important and relevant.
    • Do not put pressure on yourself to be heroic and achieve impossible deadlines: Working constantly and consistently is expected but trying to burn the midnight oil into putting your energy into activities to achieve an impossible deadline, is not good for your health. Set clear expectations with your SME/Manager on what you can achieve and when they will respect you more for it. There are many more scenarios I could discuss with you. Contracting is an art and one that we are constantly improving, so I wish you well on your journey, wherever that may take you.
    • Trust what you see more than what you hear: Pick up non-verbal messages, for example, uneasiness, and tightening of hands or facial muscles.
    • Name it by making a statement: “You are giving me more detail than I need for this training. How would you describe it in a short statement?” or words to that effect usually work well.
  2. Another behaviour that I often see is around repetition and telltale phrases: Have you heard the same facts repeated and explained to you for the third time? This could be due to an underlying concern that is surfacing through repetition. “You have to understand that…”, “Let me explain something to you…”. These phrases can be aggressive in a subtle way, and they express frustration at a work situation or process, but it can feel that it is aimed at you. If you ignore these resistance cues, they will rear up again, later. To deal with these you can:
    • Realise that it is not about or for you: Do not take it personally. Something no one tells you, but it is important to know that as a contractor, you must build a thick skin. An SME’s behaviour is not a reflection of you or your competence.
    • You have touched something important and valuable: Behaviours like what I have described above are often because you have touched a nerve on something they value, the fact is that it is simply coming out in a difficult form. I would not recommend trying to understand the ‘whys’ of their behaviour, as a contractor, not a therapist you have to stay on the implemented deadline.

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