The Expert Trap

"Now one rather annoying thing about scholars is that they are always using Big Words that some of us can't understand...

'Well,' said Owl, 'the customary procedure in such cases is as follows.'

'What does Crustimoney Proseedcake mean?' said Pooh. 'For I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words Bother me.'

'It means the Thing to Do.'

'As long as it means that, I don't mind,' said Pooh humbly.

Benjamin Hoff, The Dao of Pooh


I was speaking to an ADR class at Osgoode Hall law school this Fall about the Reasonable Person Model (RPM, see previous posts) when, to my chagrin, I confess that I fell into what RPM scholars refer to as the "expert trap." There I was, eager to explore with the students the environmental influences on mediation, started blabbing on about the environment consisting of "patterns of information" - even sent them off to do some small group discussion - and I am not sure that anyone really understood what I was talking about. One might expect that I should know better...

I am certainly not an expert in RPM, (I leave that to the scientists I work with) but as they suggest, everyone is an expert in something and, in this case, I knew more than these students about different ways to conceptualize the environment because I had been studying and working with the RPM and, I might add, an exceptional group of actual experts who are great at sharing information helpfully. This is how I went wrong...

Granted, sometimes people may be trying to 'impress' others with their knowledge, their big words and big ideas - I know that I hate it when I feel like someone is talking down to me like Pooh feels - but in this case I really, underline really, wanted these students to understand what I was trying to talk with them about. I felt so privileged to be there and was so very excited to hear what they thought about the concepts I was excited about and to learn something from them. But, as noted, I think I missed the boat...and I should know better.

What do they mean by "the expert trap?" When I first started exploring environmental psychology literature my concept of the environment was really very limited. It was the world, the earth, the physical environment around us ...that was the extent of my understanding. I recall that when I initially started reading about the RPM in particular I had a really difficult time understanding how the environment could be thought of as "patterns of information." While I was able to grasp the intellectual idea after some reading, thinking and discussing, and understood how it was a very helpful way to make sense of the mediation environment, it was still a very foreign concept to my brain. I had to keep reminding myself to deliberately think of the environment in the way that the RPM model describes it.

But now, having worked with the ideas for several years, it is second nature to me and I think about the environment this way all the time. Whether this is rather literal, words on a billboard, or perhaps more symbolic (think gold medals and silk robes hanging in an office), I tend to notice how all environments convey information to us. But I foolishly forgot my own struggles and proceeded as if this was an easy concept to explain and grasp in a short discussion session. So, ironically, there I was trying to talk about RPM and failing to get it myself. Like I said, foolish of me.

So much conflict can be related back to different versions or understandings of "reality". Telling people what to think or do is clearly not a very effective way to improve the situation and unlikely, according to the RPM, to be successful. Mediation, on the other hand, can be a supportive environment for the parties to come together to develop new, shared understandings. But the process of creating new mental models requires sharing information and this can be a very difficult process for many different reasons. My own experience with the class was an excellent reminder of just how difficult sharing information can be even when we are genuinely trying and in rather more ideal circumstances than a mediation session where people come together in conflict. I am not sure what the class took away from the session, but I learned a lot.

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