I have been called many things in my life, some good, some unpleasant, some in-between and some of varying veracity. Increasingly I seem to be referred to as something which got me thinking: I have recently been referred to as an “expert” and thought I would share some reflections on this. First of all, I am not really sure what an expert is; is it someone with high levels of education, skill, experience and ability? Or is a self-proclamation? I, like many others, am certainly acquainted with a number of individuals in ‘grown-up’ jobs who seem to lack skill, experience and ability whom I would not deign to refer to as expert in any way, apart from perhaps being experts in irritating others, causing mayhem and otherwise creating chaos. I have also met people with little formal education who certainly had advanced knowledge and experience but would unlikely be referred to as any sort of expert.

When in doubt I always seek additional information, no, not from an expert, but from ‘trusted’ sources of whatever sort. Sometimes these include selected colleagues or trusted others, and other times on that great purveyor of all things useful and useless, that consumer of time and more, namely the internet. Having just been on the web I have typed in my search term (‘expert’) and been provided with 28,300,000 results. Ordinarily I would have perused each and every one of these and distilled the findings into something meaningful, obviously using “evidence-based, robust methodology”, but it is late, I am tired, and this blog is not meant to cure insomnia – yours or mine. But there is a large body of published academic work in the subject, which serves to confuse further, not least if one thinks of experts purely philosophically. One academic paper I have just read suggests that there are two kinds of experts, one being expert in what they know and the other in what they do. [1] If this is true, then why can’t these be one and the same? Obviously this can and does happen, and there does exist the idea of an expert witness, someone who can fulfill both of these at the same time. I know this as I have acted as an expert witness in the courts and also have post-graduate training in this subject.

So why am I going on about this? It is simply that on a very basic level we are all experts in some things, but not all. After all, who knows oneself better than oneself? As a doctor I am considered expert in my field, and I am subject to a lot of guidance, regulation and law about this. For me to maintain what others consider to be my expert status I need to show that I am keeping my knowledge, skills, abilities and experience up-to-date and I have regular appraisals, training and more to prove this. I take this very seriously, and thus far this approach has served me well and kept me out of trouble. But sadly, these rules do not apply to everyone, and it is likely that one will have colleagues, bosses and others who are not subject to the same sort of regulation that doctors and other professionals have to abide by. This can give rise to problems, disagreements and situations that create and maintain conflict. Knowing how to deal with this and having access to experts in managing conflict will obviously be helpful, as will having the expertise to avoid problems in the first place where possible.

Sometimes things are beyond our scope of influence, and being an expert in one’s field should, I suggest, include being expert in conflict avoidance. This is best done by keeping one’s skills, training and experience up-to-date, being proactive in following rules and regulations, knowing where to turn when things go wrong and using any and all one’s abilities, knowledge and experience to address this. Oh, and obviously knowing about mediation and indeed the whole gamut of dispute resolution. And if that doesn’t make you an expert, I suspect not much else will!

[1] Weinstein BD (1993). What is an expert? Theory Med 14(1): 57-73.