Something that’s very hard to do as a consultant is to say, ‘I don’t know,’ or confess that you don’t understand something. But you’ve got to overcome any discomfort and learn how to do this because it’s critical that you’re honest about your knowledge gaps if you genuinely want to understand an organization or situation.
But the problem is that this is hard to do when you’ve positioned yourself as an expert, and someone’s brought you in as a problem solver. So you’ll feel self-conscious if one of the first things the client hears you say is, ‘I don’t understand that. Please explain’.
This is particularly hard when you’re just starting out but remember, you’re not saying that you don’t understand your role or what you do. You’re still a subject matter expert in your field. But you’re not an expert in that organization or industry, and you need to understand it thoroughly if you’re going to conduct an assessment or solve a problem.
So how do you do that?
- First, you have to be humble and honest: you have to admit that you don’t understand something, which starts by admitting this to yourself.
- Second, you need to work up your courage and be bold enough to say, ‘I don’t understand, please explain that to me‘. That doesn’t have to be in a group setting: you might pull someone aside after a meeting instead.
- Third, you need to listen to the explanation you’re getting and really pay attention. That’s because the thing being explained to you is probably complicated or opaque – otherwise, you’d understand it already or could have worked it out from the content. Instead, there’s something complex or nuanced that you need to learn pretty quickly.
- Fourth and finally, you have to put your ego aside as you might have to ask them to explain the thing again: it might not be something you get the first time.
However, if you can put aside your ego and anxiety, not only will you get the information you need for your assessment or project, but you’ll also be able to take advantage of the expertise someone is sharing with you. In my experience, people are always incredibly generous with their time and knowledge, and that’s how you’ll learn about all kinds of highly technical and interesting things.
But keep the overall objective in sight – to understand the organization -and never try to fake it. Otherwise, you’re going to base your solution on a poorly understood situation, which will get you into hot water.
So be humble, figure out how you’ll say it, but don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t understand, can you explain that to me?’ because you’re worried it will make you seem dumb or lacking in expertise. In fact, most people will respect you even more for having the courage to ask something that they themselves may be afraid to.