I was having a conversation with a colleague about domain expertise. We were talking about the benefits of having deep expertise in an industry and how that made us better analysts and designers. “But,” I said, “I don’t think we have to feel like our path to success is in one industry. Our skills are transferable across many industries. It can be an asset that we don’t know anything about the industry we’re working in.” Curiosity can be our strength when we don’t know something.
Being a subject matter expert in a particular domain can limit us. We can forget to be curious because we know (or think we know) the answers. Being unfamiliar with a particular domain allows us to rely on our curiosity as a strength. We can:
- ask “dumb questions” that others with advanced expertise may be too afraid to ask
- request background details that may re-acquaint our subject matter experts with information that they may have forgotten
- free associate to make connections and see opportunities that others with domain knowledge can’t see
Curiosity is a strength and it can require some confidence to use it. It shows that we are interested in learning; however, it puts us in the position of being a student. For some, this can feel like a very vulnerable position to be in in front of a group of experts. But here’s the thing – the more you use your curiosity, the more you learn and the more confident you become. That’s how a growth mindset works. And if you aren’t growing, you are probably leaving a lot of knowledge on the table.
Here’s a couple of techniques you can try to practice your curiosity:
- Ask questions and then listen. Don’t jump ahead to your next question. Listen to the response quietly and let it sink in. (See my post on The Difference Between Hearing and Listening)
- Paraphrase. Repeat back what someone has said in your own words. Paraphrasing can 1) confirm that you’ve understood what you heard and 2) help you “file away” that new thing you learned in a language you understand.
- Think out loud. Sometimes you’ll start to connect things real time as you’re learning them. Don’t be afraid to say “Just thinking out loud! Does this sound correct?” and then go for it. This is a great feedback loop and can take conversations in new and interesting places.
- Use the “new guy” card. When I’m the only one in the room who doesn’t know something, I’ll ask to play the “new guy.” This lets people know I’m going to start my questions from the very beginning – you know, “dumb questions” – so I have a common starting point. I often find that others in the room have similar questions and appreciate that someone is taking the “new guy” role. This gives them permission to learn and add their own questions to the conversation. Subject matter experts are often students too!
- Don’t be afraid of silence. Your expert may need a moment to think about your question. You may need a moment to process the answer. Learning involves a lot of cognitive processing. Don’t be afraid to have little silence while the conversation takes shape.
- Breathe. Modeling curiosity and confidence while learning in real time can create anxiety. Remember to breathe.