How to talk to experts without feeling stupid

Conversations with subject matter experts are tough.

They have insider knowledge.

And you just a PM. And you may not understand what they say. So you have to ask for clarification. Once, twice, maybe three times.

No wonder this can make you feel like an idiot:

The thing is:

Walking away pretending you got the point isn’t an option. Misunderstandings can really kill your project.

So, what do you do?

Here are 3 methods I use to communicate with experts.

Sorry I didn’t get that

Be comfortable saying “sorry, I didn’t get that” as many times as needed.

You need to have 100% clarity on what you want to know.

Don’t leave the conversation until you have confirmed you got it.

If you’ve exceeded the scheduled time, schedule a follow-on meeting.

Say it in your own words

“So, what you’re saying is ….”

That’s how you verify that what you understood is really what your counterpart meant.

For example your expert may say:

Expert: Our firewall settings don’t permit inbound traffic through port 556.

You: So, what you’re saying is our IT contractor can’t connect to our network from his office? That means they can only work from here?

Expert: Yes, that’s right.

Now you got your question answered.

Put your issue on the table

Why do you consult with your subject matter experts?

Usually it’s because you need to get a burning question answered, either about the current status or a planning isssue.

The problem with subject matter experts is: they can talk for hours about their field. And if you don’t get to the point fast you’ll have to listen to their stuff for hours.

That’s not efficient.

Here’s what you can do:

Instead of trying to make sense of what your expert is saying, just state your issue:

For example, talking to your network expert.

“We have an external contractor working for us next month. What are all the steps we need to take so that he can connect to our network from his office?”

This question asks for tangible solutions instead of information which may not be relevant.

What’s your approach for communicating with experts?

If you good advice for the readers of tacticalprojectmanager.com, share it in the comments!

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