“Quickly, that all came crumbling down” this is how Jamie Tracy opens another episode on his youtube channel the ANTI-CHEF. In a series called James and Julia, Jamie tries to copy recipes by the famous American French-cuisine chef Julia Child and usually struggles miserably and fails multiple times before accomplishing the dish. In this video: “Julia Child’s French Jelly Roll had Me Hitting Rock Bottom,” Jamie reads instructions for a jelly roll but wonders whether to leave an edge around the filling or to roll it lengthwise or width wise; important details that are NOT in the recipe. Beyond, his amusing self-deprecating demeanour Jamie helps us see a very important gap between trainers and learners; What C.S. Lewis calls the curse of expertise.
Trainers are usually experts at what they do and that’s why they’re chosen to train. However, by the time someone becomes an expert, they’ve had hours of practice and do things automatically without much thought or doubt. Think about the difference between driving a car for the first time and driving with mastery; A first-time driver is wondering about every step of the process while a skilled driver drives without even thinking and cannot even put to words what they are doing. When “expert trainers” try to transfer their skill, they are training at their level not that of the learners, and the training literally goes over their head.
You can see this phenomenon in any traditional expert-led classroom you walk into. You can also see this when we select the star performer to train the new joiner. You can see it when managers try to coach their teams or even when a good cook tries to describe how they made a dish: a bit of this, a dash of that. You can see it in yourself when you describe something you do well.
In the training room, I like to run a simple exercise to demonstrate this gap: “the lego robot”. In the exercise, a team builds a robot out of legos then writes instructions for another team to reproduce their robot. I like to make the point that success in leadership (on the job or in the training room) is not whether you know how to do something but if others can do it too. Most teams fail miserably at this exercise. Participants, like us experience a gap – an empathy gap – where we assume others know what we know and do not see their starting point.
While the curse of expertise is a natural phenomenon and happens to us all, effective trainers work hard to combat it. Here are my top 5 recommendation on how to overcome it:
- Put yourself in their shoes: In its essence, the curse of expertise is an empathy gap. You are speaking from your level as an expert forgetting about the learners’ level. Start by putting yourself in your learners’ shoes. Ask them what they already know to assess their starting point and use three questions to help bring you down to that level:
- What was it like for me when I was at that point?
- What worked for me when I was at that point?
- What support did I need but not get at that point?
- Explain it to a 6-year-old: Einstein famously said: “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, then you don’t understand it yourself”. This wisdom is a tip for any trainer who wants to explain concepts to others. WIRED have a great youtube series with an expert explaining one concept in 5 levels of difficulty starting with child all the way to expert. Watch a video of this series to see examples of this exercise which can be very helpful for any expert.
- Explain it in more than one way: Explaining the same concept in multiple ways is a crucial training skill, especially if you’re trying to bring your explanation down to your learners’ starting point. Here are some tips on preparing an explanation in multiple ways:
- Explain it
- Explain it in one sentence
- Explain it with an image / diagram
- Explain it with a story / example
- Explain it with an analogy
- Apply it to explain it
- Ask more questions: If you’ve ever received good tech support or systems training, you’ll find the person explaining usually asking questions as a major part of their explanation: “do you see this button?” “Have you clicked on it?” “What screen popped up?”. Use this technique to bring participants along when explaining a new concept. Ask them as if you’re exploring the concept together. In this way you will see your explanation more as a dialogue rather than a monologue.
- Ask participants to explain it to each other: When C.S. Lewis described the curse of expertise, he also identified that the best people to teach us are those who are just one level ahead of us. As a trainer, allow the participants who are one-step ahead of the others to explain things to their colleagues. Since they have just understood the concept, they don’t have an empathy gap and can explain it the way they understood it ie. clearer and simpler.
If you have made it so far reading this article; congratulations, you care about your learners and that’s the first step in addressing the curse of expertise. By using the 5 tips, you are surely to address this phenomenon and support your learners despite the empathy gap between you. Are there any further tips that you’ve tried as well? How did these tips work for you? Leave your suggestions and experiences in the comments.