When You Are No Longer The Smartest Person In The Room

You may have been the smartest person in the room for a long time, but getting into a room with a customer changes that because a key knowledge domain of interest is the customer’s situation and needs. Here are some suggestions for how to keep learning instead of acting like the smartest person in the room.

The Smartest Person In The Room

I meet some entrepreneurs who are used to being the smartest person in the room. Many have been the smartest person in the rooms that they have been in–and my entering the room doesn’t change that. But getting into a room with a prospect does because they are the expert on their situation and their needs.

It’s painful to experience a loss of expertise, to realize that the way that you thought the world work or how the game was played or what was likely or even possible was wrong. When people talk about iterating toward a solution what that really means is that they take their most educated and best guess at an answer and are proven wrong. And proven wrong repeatedly. It’s hard to feel like the smartest person in the room and be wrong again and again. And given the choice many people prefer to stay in rooms where they are the smartest person, which often means that they give up having conversations with prospects.

They can talk to customers and tell them that they don’t understand how to use the product, that the customer is using it wrong. But this often means that they miss market opportunities that customers communicate to other entrepreneurs who are willing to be educated.

Two Challenges: Helping Yourself and Helping Others

You can encounter this challenge in two ways. You can be the expert committed to being the smartest person in the room, or you can have a co-founder or teammate who is  stuck trying to be the smartest person in the room. I am not sure which is a harder problem.

Anatol Rapoport’s Rules For Avoiding Fruitless Arguments

In my book, Fights, Games, and Debates, I posed the question of what would happen if the ideological issue between the United States and the Soviet Union was made the subject of a debate instead of a war of words. Let me explain the difference. By a debate I mean a discussion, where opponents direct their arguments to one another rather than at third parties. In this sense, the verbal duels between opposing attorneys in courts of law or between leaders of government and opposition in parliaments are not genuine debates. Whatever arguments are presented in these encounters are directed by the opponents not at each other but at third parties, such as judges or juries or electorates. Moreover such arguments are not made to change the opponent’s way of thinking. […]

How then should a genuine debate be conducted? In order to convince an opponent at least partially that one’s own perceptions are realistic or one’s own claims are just, one must make sure that the opponent understands one’s own point of view, quite aside from whether he agrees with it or not. Therefore a pre-requisite in a genuine debate is a complete understanding by each of the opponents of the other’s position. The criterion for such understanding must be not one’s own feeling that one has understood the other’s position but the other’s feeling that his position has been completely understood. In order to ensure this kind of understanding, a rule must be introduced into a genuine debate.

Before each opponent is permitted to present his own case, he must state the case of the opponent to the opponent’s satisfaction. This means that when one side has presented the other side’s case, the other side must be asked, “Has your side been presented well?” If the answer is no, another attempt must be made and another until the opponent says, “Yes, now you have presented by case fairly.”

This procedure accomplishes several things. It ensures that each opponent has really understood the other’s position, as the other sees it, and in the process gives each opponent an idea of how it feels to espouse the opposing point of view. Second it gives both opponents the feeling that their own point of view has been understood. This assurance induces some measure of respect for the opponent. […]

The conduct of a genuine debate requires one additional rule. Each opponent must state the conditions under which the other point of view would be justified. It is always possible to find such conditions regardless how absurd the contention of the other side may seem. If some one says “White is black” I can say, “Yes, this is so if you are speaking of a photographic negative.

Only after one of the opponents has stated the other’s case to the other’s satisfaction and after he has stated the conditions under which the other’s point of view would be justified, is he allowed to proceed with stating his own case. In many cases, the arguments that will be left are arguments about whether the conditions that justify the other’s position are really satisfied. This reduces much of the debate to matters that in principle can be checked by facts. It is much easier to agree on facts than on feelings about what is “just.”

Anatol Rapoport  in “Three Modes of Conflict” (1961) [hyperlinks added]

Before You Get In The Room

Personally I tend to classify too many conversations that could be a mutual exploration for insights as arguments. And the goal of an argument is not to come in second.  One self-recovery technique I try to use before I get into the room is to make a list of the questions I need to ask or what are a few key things I am trying to learn.

This can also help with teammates: have a preparation session and walk around what you are both trying to learn, what you current hypotheses are, and what questions might disprove one depending upon how they are answered.

I find that some highly educated people have much in common with young beautiful women: they are used to being the smartest person in the room (or the prettiest girl) and don’t learn a lot about the regular give and take of social interaction that’s needed to establish a business relationship. It’s especially tiresome when it’s more like Sunset Boulevard and they don’t realize that their insights (or beauty) was a perishable commodity and they have to get along like normal people.

While You Are In The Room

Ask Basic Questions

With experience you learn to start with careful observation, keeping your eyes and ears open before you open your mouth–and to ask questions before suggesting solutions or courses of action.

  • It’s Not Jeopardy: You don’t have to try to be the first to have an answer.
  • Analysis of Competing Hypotheses: If you cannot think of at least three hypotheses for what’s happening then you probably have not given it enough thought. Ask questions that probe for whether each hypothesis might be false.
  • Summarize The Situation Before Proposing a Solution: if you cannot explain the problem to a customer’s satisfaction it’s unlikely they will believe or act on your solution.

“Mainly I Ask a Bunch of Stupid Questions”

I went to college with a man who was one of the co-founders of what is now an enterprise doing $50 billion dollars a year in revenue.  We reconnected a year or two ago and had lunch to compare notes on the state of Silicon Valley. I asked him what he was doing now and he said he mainly asked a bunch of stupid questions.

He would look in on projects in trouble or that might be getting into trouble and attend team meetings. Nobody really wanted to tell someone with a single digit badge to leave the room so he could go where he felt he could so some good. So he would listen and ask how he could help. And he would ask stupid questions.

He was candid that the technology had in many ways moved beyond his deep understanding but he did retain a fundamental understanding of the issues and of team and project dynamics. And when a simple question got a complicated answer he would ask again. And after a few tries the team could not explain the problem or situation in simple terms, if they used jargon to obscure instead of as a useful shorthand for the elements of a situation, he knew this meant that the team was in trouble because they did not have a fundamental grasp of the situation.

Daniel Dennett: Force Basic Explanations that Connect the Dots

In many fields there are controversies that seem never-ending: people are talking past one another and not making the necessary effort to communicate effectively.

When experts talk to experts, whether they are in the same discipline or not, they always err on the side of under-explaining. The reason is not far to seek: to explain something fully to a fellow expert is a very serious insult—“Do I have to spell it out for you?”—and nobody wants to insult a fellow expert. So just to be safe, people err on the side of under-explaining.

Have all experts present their views to a small audience of curious non-experts  while the other experts listen in from the sidelines. The point of the exercise is to make it comfortable for participants to speak in terms that everybody will understand.
Daniel Dennett in “Intuition Pumps

This is a variation on the Spaniel Method where you substitute eager learners for your faithful canine companion.

Write Down Good Questions and Follow Up

It never hurts to say “I don’t know,” especially if you don’t. Normally this is phrased as “I don’t know but I can find out. Let me make sure I capture your question,” and play their question back to them. This is very useful during a demo to make sure that you capture the questions that your presentation or demo trigger in a prospect’s mind. Then find out and follow up.

After You Have Left the Room

  1. De-brief with other team members on what everyone learned and what questions or unknowns still remain.
  2. Update your hypotheses and questions to reflect what you have learned.
  3. Summarize in writing so that your insights and questions can be reviewed and commented on by a prospect. Separate findings from your proposed solution.
  4. Follow up to get answers to questions you could not answer.

Related Blog Posts

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top