How to work smoothly with subject matter experts

Relationships are a key to success regardless of where you are working or with what you are work on, depending on your working environment, your projects, you meet and engage with many different personalities.

At some point you will work with a subject-matter expert (SME) or domain expert on one of your projects, SME is a person who is an authority in a particular area or topic. Some people are more challenging than others, dealing with a subject matter experts can be problematic when you want to get things done.

Dealing with SME

SME has knowledge about a specialist or technical subject that you don’t have or don’t understand. Working with an SME more often than not seems like you are coming from different planets, you both want your project to be perfect, and yet it seems you always follow completely different approaches towards the same goal.

The relationship between you and your SME will determine whether your project deliverable will be a success or a failure. In this article, I’ll share a few things that might help you build a strong, trustworthy, and productive relationship with your SME, whether they are so that you can ensure that you are equipped with the right skills for working together and making every single process run smoother than ever before.


What could be problematic about working with someone who has great knowledge and experience and is there to help you? It’s good to know what could be your most common challenges when working with SME:

  1. They are not part of your project team.
  2. As they all have full-time jobs, they usually don’t have a lot of time to spare and are difficult to find.
  3. Their knowledge and years of experience make it difficult for them to accept that what they think is important actually is not equally important to you.
  4. They are stuck in their ways and often resist change.
  5. They are very fond of a waterfall project approach.
  6. Which makes it difficult for you to engage them in more agile project methodologies.

So how do you go about to get their attention

Active listening the number one skill you need

Developing your active listening skills will help you to work effectively with SME. No matter how “egotistic” the SME may appear in your first meeting, listen to them and ask questions.

Ask them about any stories they may have about big challenges they faced throughout their career and how they overcame them, and have them share their successful moments.

When the ice has broken, reflect on what they are telling you and ask them specific questions. Show interest in your SME’s work and make sure that it is clear you respect where they are coming from. Let them be heard and it will be easier for you to analyze and handle their resistance.

How to Work Effectively With SME

We know they can be tricky to work with, and they do not have the time commitment to your project, so what can you do:

  1. Give the expert credit and verbally recognize their knowledge.
  2. Do your homework, understand SME’s area of expertise and the work they do. Prepare one or two pertinent questions in advance and make sure they know the purpose of the meeting in advance.
  3. Keep things clear, to facilitate the process and make sure that your SME is on the same page with everyone on the team throughout the project
  4. Be prepared. You need to double your efforts when dealing with SME or you’ll lose credibility. When preparing for a meeting gather objective data and facts that support your ideas.
  5. Get them involved, your project may not be your SME’ top priority. This is why you need to find ways to engage them by getting them interested so that you will be able to easily find them when you need them.
  6. Be flexible – you are all busy, but your SME is most likely to be even busier than you. Because the information they provide is critical for the success of your project, try and work around their schedule.
  7. During meetings paraphrase their ideas. Providing clarification demonstrates that you are giving them your full attention and will ultimately make them more receptive to your ideas or suggestions.
  8. Counter disagreement or problems with questions. Turn points of contention around by asking questions that allow the expert to understand the problem and consider solutions. Use open questions and avoid negative statements such as “that won’t work.”
  9. Show your SME that you appreciate their work. Contact them frequently not only to get them in synch with your project but also to acknowledge their work and time. Feedback will help maintain a positive atmosphere and also motivate them to get them more actively involved in the project. And don’t forget to send them a thank you email when your work with them is done.


Now that you know how to work effectively with Subject Matter Experts, I like to hear your advice on how you deal with experts. You can add your comments below.



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