We all know things. Some things we know very, very well, and other things we know just a bit well, but we all know things.

Experts are those who know an awful lot and have a very specific and advanced skill set. A lot of the time when trying to solve problems, we need experts to help us, like IT Engineers, Accountants or Mechanics. And that’s a good idea, because experts are very effective at solving problems.

And when we are trying to learn things, we might ask an expert to teach us. But that’s a bad idea, and here is why.


The Curse of Knowledge

Just last night, I bought a shiny new Wi-Fi router for our home to help speed up our internet connection. The installation went very smooth, and I started to enjoy much faster internet on my laptop. But a few minutes later my father-in-law came up to me and said, “The internet isn’t working” and handed me his phone.

I took one look, noticed his phone wasn’t connected to the new Wi-Fi router, and said to him “I’ve replaced the router, so you need to connect to the new Wi-Fi connection.” He stared at me blankly for a few seconds and then said; “What’s Wi-Fi?”.

Although I do not consider myself an IT expert, my level of IT expertise is obviously far higher than my father-in-law’s. I know what Wi-Fi is and he doesn’t. And when there is such a gap in levels of expertise, it becomes very, very hard to transfer that expertise.

Experts have a very, very deep level of knowledge about their subject. And to get that deep, there are a lot of concepts that they will have learnt about on the way. And the most fundamental concepts that they learnt long ago (like what Wi-Fi is) are now so familiar that they forget they had to learn those at some point. And as a result, when they try to explain their subject to a beginner like you or me, they forget the basics, and start so deep that we can’t keep up with them.

Experts are like deep sea divers, scouring the murky depths of the oceans. They are so deep that we can’t see them as we float on the surface.

As a result, expertise alone is not enough to make a good trainer.

Trainers Need Awareness

My wife is an exceptional cook. She is capable of going to any restaurant, taking one taste of the food, then going home and cooking exactly the same food. Thanks to her, I am able to enjoy Chinese food, Sushi, a British fry up or even a Mexican Burrito whenever I feel like it. My wife is an expert in the kitchen.

But whenever she asks me to cook something, and gives me instructions, it is a disaster. There is always something I end up missing, like letting the water boil before adding the dumplings, or adding a dash of salt here or unwrapping the kitchen foil for the last 5 minutes in the oven.

The reason my wife struggles to get me to follow her instructions is because for her, lots of these steps are automatic. She’s so good at them she’s completely forgotten she does them. She lacks awareness of them. If she wanted to train me to become a cook then she’d actually have to think very hard about how she does things, and even consciously observe herself in the process.

Something you are probably very familiar with is how to use your computer. Take a simple procedure like emptying files from your computer’s hard drive. If I asked you to explain how to do that to an elderly grandparent, you might actually struggle a bit. You would probably have to watch yourself do it first to remind yourself the exact procedure and all of the steps. Only then would you be able to explain it effectively to your grandparent.


Observe Yourself

You don’t need a PhD to train others, nor do you need 30 years of experience, or a Nobel Prize. But what you do need is an awareness of how to do things.

If you’re a manager, then there are probably things that you’re good at that your team members aren’t. Things like managing your time, having difficult conversations or handling customer requests. But just because you’re good at those, doesn’t mean you can train others how to do those. Telling people things like “Be more organised”, “You’ve got to be more direct”, or “Listen to the customer’s needs” are too vague and difficult to act on.

If you want to help upskill your team members then you need to pay attention to how you actually do things. What are the steps you follow to be more organised? How do you phrase things directly as opposed to indirectly? What is your thinking process when listening to customer’s needs?

Observe yourself in action. Aim to list all of the steps you follow. Then try explaining those steps to someone else and see if they can follow them and get the same result. If they can then that’s great. And if they can’t, then that’s fine. Learn where their misunderstandings are, then go back, observe yourself in action again and try to find the missing steps. Eventually you’ll find a way of explaining that gets results.

So, the next time you need to train someone, remember these steps:

  1. Observe yourself in action
  2. List the steps
  3. Explain those steps to them
  4. Check their understanding
  5. Adapt your explanation where necessary