Communicators Should NOT Be Subject Matter Experts

Photo by me. 

Transference is when you treat your therapist the way somebody else treated you. 

Professional communicators are like therapists to the organization. 

Unlike the stereotype that we are "just a bunch of writers" who "put together pretty pictures," our real job is to put the organization on the couch. Its leaders especially. (Read Kets de Vries.)
 A brand expert is there to help the organization project the right image. That's the end of the game. 

The communicator is the architect of the brand base layer. We are there to help the customer - people and groups - be ready for the brand. 

We dig down through the layers of denial, dysfunction, and destruction. Our job is to hold the customer's hand and help them come out from the painful process of self-discovery in a better place.
  The parallel between communication and therapy is very strong.

In therapy:

1. It is not only routine, but imperative that the therapy patient transfers the earlier painful relationship onto the therapist herself or himself. By re-creating it, the therapist can help the patient experience the pain of the past, go through the emotion, and get free. So that they don't re-create the dynamic with other people in their lives.

2. It is also routine, and unfortunate that the therapy patient will take great pains to deny the transference, deny their feelings, deny deny deny. A good therapist knows that this is motivated by fear and helps the patient through it.

3. Finally it is common for therapists to project feelings onto their patients from their own personal baggage. This is called counter-transference. It's why good therapists go to therapy themselves, so that they don't let this interfere with the patient's care.

Similarly, in communication:

1. The organization and its leaders will treat the communicator the same dysfunctional way they treat other people. In other words, they will transfer their dysfunction onto the communicator - the same person who is there to help them. This is to be expected and not viewed personally. It is actually a sign that the relationship is working. A subject matter expert who is cozy with the organization will not experience transference this way, and therefore cannot assist with it.

2. The communicator should expect that the organization will deny what it is doing in #1. The person who waits for the organization to "see the light" and "magically change" is not understanding the dynamic or how to resolve it. You have to experience what they do to others, before you can help - which is why it is good not to get too close to the customer or you will drink their Kool-Aid. Subject matter experts who think the way the customer does therefore tend to be poor communicators on their behalf.

3. The communicator will routinely experience frustration due to their own "baggage." After all - we do have motivations for going into the field - the need to be seen as an expert, the need to be listened to, the need to have the power to change things. These are not issues with the customer, but issues that the communicator must confront and resolve in other arenas. Subject matter experts who are not invested in communication are like people doing therapy without a license - they will not experience the kind of counter-transference that signifies commitment to communication itself.

I would argue that mature organizations know this, and avoid hiring subject matter experts to do the work of a trained communicator.

On the other hand, immature organizations seek to avoid being confronted with the underlying problems that cause poor communication - and so rely on subject matter experts claiming that they are "better equipped" to do the job. This is a form of denial.

Transference and countertransference are difficult issues to deal with, but they are real and a sign of commitment and progress in the communication relationship. We should not shy away from them, but rather understand what they are telling us and use them to move forward.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!