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Dealing with know-it-alls - even if you are one yourself.

Dealing with know-it-alls--even if you are one yourself

Know-it-alls are among the most annoying types encountered in the laboratory. These exasperating experts may be knowledgeable in their respective fields, but when they condescend to share their wisdom, they belittle others. They intimidate us with their air of superiority and frequent put-downs.

How does someone become a know-it-all? Who are the most likely candidates? The truth is that any of us can fall into the trap.

* It's good to be right. A successful trip through the educational system can confer that distinction. Top grades are bestowed upon those who always have the correct answer. Having learned that an accumulation of facts and information brings stability, they have come to expect to be rewarded for being right. Having learned that power is derived from formulating their own ideas, they find others' contributions irrelevant. (In a manager, this attitude can be disastrous.)

* It's good to be autonomous. Know-it-all parents pass the attitude on to their progeny. They proudly teach their children, tomorrow's know-it-alls, to be self-assured, self-directed, self-sustaining; to need nothing from anyone. Consider for a moment the laboratory's typical know-it-all expert. He truly believes he can run the lab better than anyone else, all by himself. How old is he emotionally?

Culprits are easy to identify. They frequently adopt a condescending manner, introducing their sentences with phrases as "for your information," "as you are aware," and "as you will recall." When particularly pleased with themselves, know-it-alls may gush, "No one could touch me. I was so well prepared." They are superior to everyone and sure about their facts. Are they waiting for Mother's praise?

* Coping methods. A sound strategy is to encourage know-it-alls to consider alternative viewpoints while carefully avoiding any direct challenges to their expertise. The bold statement "Doctor, you are wrong" would be considered a personal attack and probably squelch your proposal. Instead, convey your appreciation of the know-it-all's know-how.

It's best to postpone taking any action while the person has ample time to review your proposal. Although many laboratory situations do not afford the luxury of time, you can still take steps to keep know-it-alls in check. Try the following five-step approach:

Be an expert yourself. To a know-it-all, there are two types of people: competents and incompetents. Heaven help the latter, who do not deserve the time of day. Have you ever had a know-it-all hang up on you or wander off while you were talking? Your best shot is to tap your adult personality, as described in the first part of this series ("Coping with Difficult People," MLO, September 1990). Stick to the facts. Speak in a monotone; recite your message without emotion.

Ask extensional questions. The crux of the academic strategy that has succeeded so well for know-it-alls is to ask extensional questions--that is, questions that encourage the other person to rethink what has just been said. Best are those that begin with "how" or "what" and will elicit information about the know-it-all's chief concerns: methods, procedures, goals, and results. Know-it-alls are task oriented. They want to know that tests are being performed correctly and that the quality of results will be assured. Avoid asking questions that begin with "why," which will seem to challenge the know-it-all's expertise.

As you listen carefully, look for holes in the know-it-all's arguments. Then ask a "how" or "what" question whose answer will fill the holes. Taking this tack gives them an opportunity to rethink their original stand without losing face. In providing new information to the discussion, their response will supply an avenue for graceful retreat. For example, you might ask: "How are we going to do this when we have had problems with that?" or "What would happen if . . .?"

One particularly strong strategy is to ask a series of "how" and "what" questions. By treating the know-it-all as the person who has all the answers, you will flatter his or her ego while obtaining your objective at the same time.

Align yourself with the know-it-all's ideas. Know-it-alls are more likely to accept alternative ideas that reflect their own concerns. Success may therefore depend on getting your alternatives in step with whatever is important to them. Since laboratory experts are typically motivated by outcomes and results, they want methods to be accurate and procedures to be efficient. Here is a familiar example:

A know-it-all pathologist instructs a MT to run a 20-step procedure. The technologist knows a more efficient 10-step method. She also knows that if she merely suggests switching methods with no introduction, the pathologist won't buy it. Therefore, in presenting her plan, she gets into alignment with his priorities: "I know that accuracy and quality are very important. There's a 10-step method that will give excellent results in half the time. Should we try it?" This cushioned version is far more likely to succeed.

Alignment, followed by a series of extensional questions, is the best way to get a know-it-all to back off. For example: "I know quick turnaround is essential. What would happen if we tried (this)? How about trying (that)?"

Take a subordinate position. Suppose you try the extensional question approach, but the know-it-all stands firm. If so, taking a subordinate position can be a useful backup strategy. That is, do exactly what the know-it-all expert asks you to do.

I take this approach whenever my know-it-all father and I work on a remodeling project together. It has served me well for years. I always start out as the project "gofer." When my father realizes he needs my help and asks for advice, I shift to my know-it-all-son mode.

This tactic works because I deliberately assume the subordinate status about to be foisted on me. It is not easy to keep this up for long, though. Many who are able to follow through with this strategy with one person become know-it-alls with others in a classic kick-the-cat syndrome.

Establish physical distance. An extremely popular approach is to put distance between yourself and the know-it-all. You might work a different shift, transfer to another section, or divide responsibilities with someone else who can share the grief--handling only administrative duties or technical tasks, for example.

A similar option is to use physical barriers. A common strategy is to have an assistant or secretary act as a buffer, interacting directly with the know-it-all. If all else fails, experience a self-inflicted telephone "malfunction," such as hanging up in the middle of a know-it-all's tirade. (This approach is most believable if you disconnect the call while you are speaking.)

* Birds of a feather. Who has the most trouble coping with know-it-alls? You guessed it: other know-it-alls. I have noticed that even we occasional know-it-alls experience substantial distress when we encounter others. One way to deal with this phenomenon is to follow the law of interpersonal communication called matching energy. It makes sense that one expert would feel compelled to compete with another. Each obtains an opportunity to enrich the other's experience and knowledge.

Basically, I think we want to coexist with fellow know-it-alls. We can make a start by recognizing when we slip into the know-it-all mode and then practicing what we preach. For instance, instead of telling a group of medical technologists how to perform a test, ask them a series of questions about the procedure. This Socratic approach confirms their capabilities without patronizing them.

To further your cause, get into alignment with what is paramount to the other person and show the relationship of these priorities to your own ideas. When you catch yourself slipping into the know-it-all syndrome, heed the warning buzzer. Establish physical distance between yourself and the other expert before he or she tries the strategy on you.

One reason know-it-alls are so difficult to deal with in the laboratory is that anyone may become one at any moment. The laboratory, demanding accuracy and high quality, needs experts; some are know-it-alls. The metamorphosis can happen at a moment's notice. To obtain concessions from the self-important, shift from telling to asking. Demonstrate that their goals are compatible with your own. Eliciting everyone's best work is part of the job. Time-honored techniques will help achieve this even with know-it-alls. The adroit laboratorian learns and practices daily many facets of the gentle art of persuasion.

The author is president of Communications Management Group, Houston, which provides health care training and development programs, and adjunct professor at the University of Houston. He is in the human resource development department at Methodist Hospital, Houston, and has taught communication and group dynamics in the medical technology program at the University of Colorado, Denver.
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Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Coping with Difficult People, part 2
Author:Nations, Kenneth H., III
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Oct 1, 1990
Previous Article:Computerization: key to a successful QA program.
Next Article:When duplicate testing leads to different results.

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