Turn on the right light – How to work with an expert

Have you ever been in a workshop and an expert bored you out of your mind? They had important stuff to say, but there was no process behind it? Did you maybe even wondered why they are there in the first place? That happened to all of us at least once.

As a facilitator, we sometimes have to work with experts during a learning event. Most of the time, this decision is not in our hands, but how we work with them definitely is. I am convinced if well prepared the above horror scenario can be absolutely avoided! In this IMG_0104blog post, I will present you with different types of experts you might encounter and walk you through how to work with them in different settings.

I differentiate between three types of experts. First, there is the floodlight expert that loves to be in focus and floods the participants with knowledge like the floodlight the soccer field. On the other end of the spectrum is the living room lamp expert. This expert feels awkward being in the spotlight. They prefer to shine their light from the background like the lamp behind your couch. And finally the flashlight experts. They feel comfortable navigating an educational space and know where to spot their light while leaving other aspects in the dark.

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The floodlight

The floodlight expert needs the stage. They will take up space no matter what and will speak and behave like THE expert. That might lead to the expert explaining to the participants by flooding them with facts. It also could establish their views as the only correct IMG_0107ones. This kind of expert can operate from a spot of entitlement and often is pushed on you by your client. There is the risk that this expert will take over control of the session as you might not have the ‘authority’ to set up sharp boundaries.

Working with a floodlight expert can be a challenge and has to be handled with some artfulness. Especially if the client insists on the expert. In this case, I work with the client on a clear framework for the expert’s presence. What do they add to the event? In what role will they participate? What are the power relations? After that is clarified, I would present to the client candid which processes are possible in that frame. I would also speak about what role I can take during the event to not create tensions with the expert. If the expert and their input were the main focus of the session, I would suggest that I either moderate the conversation or step back and conduct a Graphic Recording.

IMG_0101In a one-session-learning-event, there is not much more you can do than the above. It really depends on the frame the client sets. If I take the role of the moderator, I sit down with the expert beforehand to clarify the process and look at the questions I would ask. In the case of the Graphic Recording option, I would only passively participate in the session. Nevertheless, it still could be my responsibility to open and close the overall activity.

IMG_0102For a multi-session-learning-event, I often use the sessions before the expert’s input to prepare it with the participants. For that, I would look at what knowledge or attitude they need to build to interact productively. Sometimes, I even work with the learners to formulate questions, that have the potential to increase the relevancy of the input. After the presentation, I usually would debrief the session. For that, it would be best if the expert leaves after they are done. The group would have the chance to voice their opinion on the expert in a safe space and reflect on the content. That makes it easier to build on it in the remaining time.

IMG_0103I would similarly work in a multi-day-learning-event. The point in the learning journey in which the expert would join is crucial. When does it support and not interrupt the process? How can we build up towards it? If the moment depends on the schedule of the expert, I check if I need to redraft the journey itself. Putting an input at the beginning of the event could lead to the participants adopting the views of the expert. I would try to avoid that on any cost. If the group worked already on the topic, they would feel more comfortable to disagree with or challenge the expert.

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The living room lamp

The living room lamp expert blends in just like the actual lamp in your living room. They IMG_0108might even ask you to join the participants throughout the learning event and feel awkward being put into the focus. They often do not establish themselves as an expert and inputs might be diffuse. That opens the risk for a conflict of views if you have a really dominant participant or that the group does not really know what to do with the input. Unfortunately, this kind of expert is often young and/or female. 

I usually aim to work really close together with this kind of expert in the preparation. The more they feel integrated into the development, the more they appreciate the setting. It also helps to gain a clear understanding of their specific expertise to support them to integrate effectively. If they still do not feel comfortable and prefer to be an expert participant, I try to find small group methods with a lot of rotation of the members. This way, as many participants as possible, can have conversations with the expert.

IMG_0101One way, I include a living room lamp expert into a one-session-learning event, is to let them (co-)facilitate one activity. That could be the moderation of a group discussion or guiding a simulation within the specialisation of the expert. To support them and the group, it helps to give them very explicit guidelines regarding the content and the context of it. The earlier they get this briefing, the easier it will go, and both of us have the opportunity for bilateral feedback beforehand.

IMG_0102For a multi-session-learning-event, I would look at the possibility to give the expert a kind of consultant role. Let’s say, part of the sessions is to develop roadmaps for follow-up actions. Let the groups present their first drafts to the expert. They then give feedback and advice, which the groups afterwards have time to consider and integrate into the final draft. Another way is to let the expert follow a simulation up with a reality check. How does the simulated situation look like in real life? What are the options that the different roles actually have? I also sometimes let them simply go around during a group work phase, where they challenge the different groups.

IMG_0103For me, an ideal option for a multi-day-event is to work with this expert throughout the entire time in a co-facilitator relationship. That will allow the participants to build a connection with the expert and feel comfortable to ask them questions and vice versa. It is also convenient for me as I can tap into their knowledge for the preparation. Nevertheless, this option needs some sensitiveness for how the roles are established. The expert needs to remain a resource person than a knowledge authority. 

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The flashlight

The flashlight expert only shines their expert-light on specific aspects that will further IMG_0106the process. They often have an educational background or at least are experienced in the setting. They usually are aware of the space they take and incorporate the learners’ discussions into upcoming inputs. So, if that does not happen, the different moments of the expert might seem disconnected. This kind of experts can also stir your process in an unplanned direction.

This expert is a juicy one to work with – so many opportunities! I really love to use this expert like an actual flashlight. Before the event, I would sit down with them and see with them what are crucial moments or aspects they can shine their concentrated light on. That makes it really easy for me to guide the process and for them to focus and challenge the preconceptions of the participants.

IMG_0101Nevertheless, in a one-session-learning-event, this approach is a bit tricky to implement as it takes up some time due to the multiple inputs. Here I would see with the expert if they have one aspect that is really crucial for the topic of the event. They would then focus on that, and I would guide the group into diving deeper.

IMG_0102For multi-session-learning-events, I prefer to have this expert with us for the entire time. This way, I can weave the different inputs really deep into the programme and build them up on each other. The preparation with the expert is hugely crucial here. I need to be sure that they stay on track and do not go off on a tangent. Also, I always have an eye on the time and stop the expert when necessary. After all, it is about the participants, not them.

IMG_0103I would dedicate one specific day for the expert to come in and integrate them similar to above. It is essential to establish an understanding among the participants why the expert joins the group. This way, I can lower barriers and support the group to open up to them. Should the expert participate for more than a day, it is crucial to make sure that they do not take over the educational process. They are joining as an expert, not as a facilitator no matter their experience. That is needed to create clear roles and not disrupt the participants. I usually give them space for feedback and input in the preparation to honour their educational skills and knowledge.

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So what do you think? Here are the main takeaways:

  • Get your client into the clear: Check with them what is their expectation for bringing the expert. Sometimes there is a strategic reason behind it, and you do not want to cross them there.
  • Be frank and honest: You must be really precise with both your client and the expert. The better each partner knows what and how it will happen, the smoother the activity will go. And the more they understand the reasons behind it, the less resistance will be there.
  • Preparation is key: When the expert knows, what is expected when from them, the better the cooperation works. Also, a proper groundwork will allow you to get the most educational value out of an expert.
  • Adjust to the type: Use the expert strategic. This way, you make sure they do not accidentally sabotage the activity.
  • And as always, be the advocate of your participants!

What are your tips and tricks to work with experts? Did you have a difficult situation with an expert and no clue what to do?  Let me know in the comments below. 

Also, it would help me out if you like and share this post with your fellow trainer friends!

 

Love and appreciation,

Anuschka

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