Listening and the Politics of Humiliation

Why do you listen to people? When I ask this question of clients and others I tend to get answers focussed on the content: "listening lets me learn something I don't know". There is no argument from me on that point. But why would you listen to others when you don't think you can learn anything from them? One obvious answer is that you are probably wrong about that, and you almost certainly will learn something. But here I'm interested in another answer that is important to all collaborators.

In a recent opinion piece, New York Times Columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote about the "politics of humiliation" and suggested that humiliation is one of the strongest, most motivating emotions we can experience. He quotes Nelson Mandela as saying "there is nobody more dangerous than one who has been humiliated". Then Friedman goes on to make the point that the countervailing emotion is respect. "If you show people respect, if you affirm their dignity, it is amazing what they will let you say to them or ask of them".

And this brings me to the second answer to my earlier question. One of the reasons to really listen to someone, even when we don't expect to learn something from them, is to show them respect and affirm their dignity. As Friedman writes: "Sometimes it just takes listening to them, but deep listening - not just waiting for them to stop talking. Because listening is the ultimate sign of respect. What you say when you listen speaks more than any words."

Those who feel humiliated will never collaborate; Those who feel disrespected will never collaborate; Those who feel unheard or ignored will never collaborate unless and until they feel respected. And as Friedman says, one way to clearly demonstrate our respect for another is to listen to them deeply.

Friedman is writing in the context of US politics, but the message seems universal to me. In order to work effectively with others to tackle hard problems together we need to genuinely respect them, and demonstrate that respect in the way we act. Listening holds the key.

So now let me listen to you. What is your takeaway from Friedman's article?


The Agony of Silence

Thinking about this month's theme of listening I've been reflecting on why I find it so hard to be silent in a group environment- to pause and wait for others to speak. In my experience as a facilitator and coach, I feel this tension almost every time I work. That growing anxiety as I pause and wait for input or a response from someone else in the room or on the zoom call. But why do I feel this way?

  • Is it that I feel inadequate if I'm not contributing or controlling the conversation?
  • Is it that I worry my client won't be getting value if I'm not talking?
  • Is it that I just have so much valuable stuff to say that I must get it out?
  • Is it that I don't want to give others a chance to get their threepence worth in?
  • Am I worried that they might say something contradictory?
  • or even worse, they might say something more insightful or valuable than I could?

The palpable tension as the pause lengthens, and silence fills the space.

What are they thinking? Will someone step up? What happens if they don't, and will it seem like I've wasted their valuable time being quiet.

It's a ridiculous fear really, that a 30-second pause might result in a failure to meet a deadline, or get a job done, or meet the boss's needs, particularly as we have already used 10 times more than that on arguing who is right or wrong on some aspect of the issue.

And then relief! Someone steps in with an insight, a question, a comment, an idea. It cascades from there like a dam has broken and overwhelms those assumptions and anxieties.

So I have learnt that the pain of being silent is one of the keys to listening more effectively. But this insight doesn't make it any easier to keep my mouth shut for those seemingly interminable seconds!


A hop, skip and jump into collaboration

When facing any problem at work, our natural tendency as a leader is to seek a clear process to find solutions.

A step by step guide that gives us confidence we are on the right track, and can get the desired outcome. It would seem that part of the attraction is our need to know, and to be seen as a good problem solver (otherwise we might look a bit incompetent??)

Now it seems that in a lot of circumstances this works just great, but what about those wicked and complex problems where our standard problem solving fail and we need new thinking to tackle it together.

We've spent a fair bit of time trying to make sense of this dilemma- how to provide a step by step guide to solve complex issues when the nature of complexity dictates that a linear approach will fail!

Our insight is that we need to treat such situations more like a dance than a climb- taking a flexible approach allows for the emergence necessary when taking a more collaborative approach.

We can still generate a framework and set of tools in a logical sequence to provide guidance, but we are seeing growing evidence with clients that being able to "hop, skip and jump" is key to success. This might look like

  • starting at the appropriate place in the logic given your situation- maybe step 3 or 7....
  • moving back and forward through the logic as needs dictate
  • missing some steps if needed
  • starting anywhere, but going everywhere.

While you might need to understand the framework and know how to use any particular tool, a key success factor will also be to know what tool to use when- the hop, skip and jump approach.

If you want to know more about how to do this, talk to us about applying our Collaboration System.


The P.I.V. of Agreement

Do you know that feeling you get when tasked with trying to get a bunch of people to agree, who fundamentally see things differently and want different outcomes? You know that feeling when you are anticipating that this is going to be a fight, a talkfest, a waste of time?  It is a pretty uncomfortable place to be and I’ve seen clients in this position start to doubt their capability as managers.

Getting agreement among people who have diverse and strongly-held opinions is challenging, there is no doubt. But sometimes we make it more challenging than it needs to be by focussing on the opinions, rather than seeking to understand why we hold them.

Here is a simple model to illustrate. We call it the PIV triangle.

The two triangles represent two people, each with a very different and strongly held opinion about an issue they must work on together. Let’s call that opinion their Position, as in “this is the position I’m taking on this issue”.

We can see that there is a lot of space between the two positions at the top; a gulf between how person A and person B see this situation. In this case the discussion often becomes a battle of wills, an argument between opposing sides.

But let’s go deeper. We can see that the position each person holds is supported by their Interests, the things that they want. Person A holds position A because he feels it will deliver on his interests. Person B does the same with her position and interests. But too often neither person learns the interest of the other as they are too busy defending their own position and attacking the other.

And then let’s go deeper again. We can see that our interests are consistent with the fundamental Values we hold, our deep sense of the way the world is and should be. Often we struggle to articulate these values to ourselves, let alone share them with those we disagree with. Yet we can see that our values are often much more similar than we might imagine. We have much more in common than we expect.

And yet, because we are focussed on winning the argument about position we can be deaf and blind to the values of the other. No wonder agreement can be so difficult!

Collaboration requires us to recognise that a person’s strongly-expressed opinion is not the sum total of who they are. They hold that position because it seems to them at least to support their interests, which will be consistent with their deep values. And their deep values are likely to be not too different to mine. If we can find ways to have conversations about the things that really matter to us about the current problem, we are much more likely to find common ground, to stop arguing and start listening. Best of all, we are much more likely to emerge from the discussion with a brand new idea that better matches the situation, and which we all own.

So the next time you have to wrangle people where there is a lot of disagreement about the way forward, you may want to encourage everyone to do less talking about their idea and more exploring of others’ positions, interests and values. If you would like to know more about how to do that talk to us about our Collaboration System, which incorporates a number of tools for shifting from argument to agreement.


The Dilemma- a chip off the old bloke

As I ponder on the past and emerging dilemmas in 2020 - like the recent bushfires, the current coronavirus crisis, and key challenges like indigenous disadvantage, deteriorating mental health and risks from climate change, I'm often a bit disappointed and frustrated by the simplistic and solution focused ways in which we tend to respond.

It seems like "I know the answer, you just need to listen to me and implement what I say, and all will be OK".

Given the complex nature of such challenges, stepping back from the answer and taking some time to explore the question first is being increasingly recognised as a more useful approach, particularly given the history of failures applying the business as usual "solution" approach.

So Einstein's quote from long ago would still seem very relevant ie

"If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem, and 5 minutes thinking about the solutions".

However while thinking- and talking together - about getting on the same page is a crucial first step, the emerging dilemma can look a bit too big and complex, perhaps overwhelming, and it can be hard to know where and how to get started.

In our experience, finding a chunk of the problem to focus on can be really useful - something that feels feasible, relevant and achievable to start with.

A "right sizing" exercise can focus the efforts on to a piece of the problem, with greater confidence that it:

  • is substantive, but doable
  • warrants our time and resources
  • motives us and other stakeholders
  • potentially leads to a useful result
  • really matters to those involved

So perhaps we should ask Einstein to sacrifice a bit of that hour to right size the dilemma?


One thing the populist response to COVID tells us about collaboration

The global COVID pandemic, as tragic and difficult as it is, offers many insights into how people and nations respond to wicked problems. An insight that stands out for me is the value of working to understand the problem faced before leaping to solutions. We call this co-defining the dilemma. When done poorly you get Brazil’s COVID response. When done even half well you get something like Australia’s.

So what is the COVID dilemma? A better question would be ‘what are the many dilemmas inherent in this situation? Let’s pick the central two dilemmas within the dilemma, which every country is obviously grappling with:

  1. How do we minimise the impact of the virus on our health?
  2. How do we minimise the impact of the virus on our economy?

In many ways these two dilemmas are poles apart – we kill the virus by closing down, which probably kills the economy. Yet we protect jobs by staying open, meaning party time for the virus.

It’s challenging, yet it seems that many jurisdictions haven’t come to grips with the dilemma here. Of course they have acknowledged the pieces but they don’t seem to have framed them as a dilemma to be addressed. Rather they slide into a simplistic ideological battle; On the one hand “we have to lock down to keep us safe”. On the other, “we have to stay open to protect the economy”.

In some countries this over-simplistic thinking has resulted in an over-simplistic ‘plan’ to keep things open as much as possible, protecting jobs and the economy. Of course, this approach has implications reflected in a climbing death toll and in the end a likely massive economic hit as well.

What might they do differently? Lots, obviously. But my contribution would be to get agreement on the dilemma in order to open up the domain of possible responses. Put very simply this could be something like: how do we best respond to this virus and its impacts in ways that keep us safe and healthy while strengthening the foundations of a resilient and productive economy?

This type of framing of the dilemma isn’t an invitation to go to war over solutions. It isn’t an either-or-problem. It is a this-and dilemma that stakeholders need to work on creatively together. Importantly, it contains some insight into what success looks like in the long term – safe, healthy and resilient. These are things we can all work towards, regardless of our ideology.

Understanding the dilemmas instead of arguing over competing ‘solutions’ to poorly understood problems is such a simple yet powerful idea. And what is true of a national pandemic response is also true of a small organisational, issue. Time taken to co-define is always time well spent. What is your dilemma and to what extent do all stakeholders understand it and agree?

To learn how you can co-define your dilemma, take a look at our Power of Co System.


What makes you do different?

While reading Stuart and Viv's great new blogs to get some inspiration for this month's topic, I noticed the tag line at the bottom of our blog page- about our programs "building your collaborative muscle"

Then I thought ...aahh...I'm actually in the middle of something just like that- my continuing recovery from my surgery for my ruptured quad tendon, particularly re-building the quad muscles that had atrophied from lack of use.

So why is this a time to try something different?

I've realised that I just have to, because:

  • I can't do what I normally used to do
  • there's a high risk to my future (mobility) if I push what I normally do
  • when I try to fix something it doesn't seem to work the same as before
  • I'm willing, but others aren't (in this case my leg!)
  • I revert back to business as usual pretty quickly

So what am I now doing that I may have avoided before, not even considered, or been embarrassed to try?

  • slowing down hugely (easier when your body forces that on you)
  • asking for help (eg requesting a wheelchair at the airport)
  • following a really rigorous 12 month rehabilitation plan (that actually changes weekly depending on progress)
  • but also accepting that I might just have to let things emerge, as I can't predict or plan everything (eg improving knee flexibility past 90 degrees)
  • constantly experimenting with new ways to get things done (climbing stairs, crossing slopes, working permanently from home)
  • Letting go of some things (being OK to not control everything- because the damn leg just won't respond)
  • sharing the load at home and work (could be just an excuse to avoid cleaning the shower!)

And I'm actually seeing that trying something different isn't just really useful when I am faced with a complex and uncertain situation that challenges almost everything I do, but it's actually the only way to get the type of progress I need to reach my vision- skiing black runs again within 12 months- Covid permitting!

So I'm wondering what's your try-different story? Hopefully not as debilitating as mine!


Is it time to do something different?

This is a very appropriate title for my blog this month as I, personally, am about to do something very different that is simultaneously exciting, scary, sad and makes me feel vulnerable. Yes, I’m going to step back from 59 years of (almost) regular work and 32 years since I founded Twyfords in 1988. I’m going to step into the unknown world of “retirement’.

I’m doing it because it seems like a sensible way of approaching the rest of my life. I don’t know what it will look like, I don’t know what it will feel like. I have already received advice that ‘transition to retirement is not always as easy as many people expect’ and that I ‘should have a retirement plan’.

What I have learned over this last decade of exploring collaboration is that, when facing an uncertain future, full of ambiguity, which is likely to include complex decisions about many things,  and likely to be dependent on the input of many other people, careful planning isn’t necessarily going to help.

So, my plan is not a detailed plan but more of a heuristic to live by as I let the future emerge. My notes to myself are:  keep my body active through regular local and long distance walking; keep my mind active by learning new things and reading more widely; and finally continue to attempt things that challenge me.

While musing about this future, after 32 years I’m unable to switch off the habit of considering Twyfords future, in parallel to my own.

I am excited for the possibilities for the company, and sad that I won’t be such an active participant as in the past.  We’ve been working hard during the uncertainties of the Covid-19 environment, the anxieties of the Black Lives Matter movement all embedded in the planet’s vulnerability to climate change. It’s pretty obvious to us just how important collaboration is going to be at every scale.

Twyfords theme this month is ‘Is it time to do something different?’

By this we mean, isn’t it time to think and act differently and improve our people’s capability to work really effectively with others on tricky, messy issues where complexity and uncertainty abound?

We asked our networks and their networks to respond to a quick 60 second survey. We are delighted at the number of responses we’ve had. We are finding evidence that the challenges facing project managers who want to lead their teams into more productive ways of working are the challenges our work is focused on solving i.e.

  • They are looking for ways to ‘nudge’ their people to work differently and more constructively together.
  • They seek confidence in leading a diverse team as it tackles difficult projects.
  • They want to ‘add’ collaboration to their project management skillset for the future and
  • They want to be able to ‘manage up’ and influence their managers and executives to support this new way of working.

I am confident that my colleagues at Twyfords, starting immediately, have solutions for project managers within organisations that struggle with:

  • impermeable silos,
  • a risk averse culture,
  • a technical focus ... and most specifically
  • a lack of support for ‘doing different’.

I wish them, as well as old and new clients, an exciting, but sometimes a little scary, way of ‘doing different’ where both authenticity and vulnerability will lead them into new ways and new success.

I’m also confident those ways of thinking and working will help me as I step into my new world as well!


Four ways to build collaborative habits in the workplace (despite weak flesh)

"Reverting to the usual way of doing things is a deceptively easy default option and often appears to be lower risk than trying something different."

So said someone in their response to our recent survey. It reminded me of another quote which has been around a little longer:  "Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation. The Spirit is indeed willing but the flesh is weak".

In terms of collaboration - and to be honest, most other contexts - I can definitely relate to the idea that while the intention to do something different is there, it can be difficult to stick with the change. Just today, for example, I realised I have participated in a series of one-off conversations around a group, rather than finding a way to get the group together. The outcome has been some confusion, when shared clarity would have been so easy. Yet I got lazy and reverted to business as usual. Definitely some weak flesh here folks.

It is a good reminder of why many clients find it very difficult to achieve a change that sticks, despite knowing that more collaborative behaviours are useful. Behaving differently requires us to, well, behave differently, and as I can attest, that isn't easy. As always, this brings me to the role of mindset, or how we think. It is very clear that, while being more effective as collaborators is about doing things differently, what it is REALLY about is thinking differently. In order to 'do' collaboration we must 'be' collaborative.

So what does it take to think differently in order to avoid sliding back to business as usual ways of working? We are still finding the answer to this question, but here are some things that seem to help.

  1. Learning by doing is powerful. Trying different behaviours, perhaps not always getting them right, but going again.
  2. The magic training intervention is a myth. Time is required to build new patterns of thought. It can't happen overnight so don't expect it to.
  3. Reflection on 'my' mindset is essential. Ask yourself, how am I thinking about this situation, this person or team, and what are the implications of that? If I was thinking like a collaborator, what would I do differently?
  4. Do your learning together with your collaborators. Make it public and make it part of the process. Learn to collaborate by collaborating to learn.

I wonder what your experience has been. If you are like me, then sliding out of the collaborative mindset is an ever-present threat. It is for this reason we have been working on a Collaborative Project Guide (watch this space) to support teams to collaborate more effectively by working differently, despite the gravitational pull of business as usual. While our spirit is willing, we hope the Guide will help our flesh be strong.


Fear of failure - does it shut us down or drive us?

Perhaps fear of failure starts at school where the words ‘failure’ and ‘fail’ are scary. They are represented by teachers and parents as something definitely undesirable. I was a bright kid in a small primary school in the UK, so I didn’t come into contact with those words until, at age 11, I went to grammar school, where I was among lots of other bright kids in a much larger school with regular tests and exams.

Used to being near the top of a small class, I found myself struggling. Tests and examinations became opportunities to fail. “What did you get?” was a common question as results were handed out. Failures made me feel inadequate and less worthy. I didn’t always meet my own expectations let alone the expectations of teachers, friends and family.

These failures at school, while uncomfortable, didn’t frighten me or shut me down. I think I just redefined my future. I decided on exploration as my next step rather than university and a specific career. I might have experienced failure academically, but I wasn’t going to fail at work or at life.  I’d be successful if I applied myself, stayed open to new experiences, met new people, travelled to new places, set and met my own goals and lived the life I chose. My inevitable failures would be temporary and be learning experiences.

These beliefs drove me. With every move, every new opportunity, every compliment, I gained confidence. I even tried academia again ... and succeeded.

But situations where the possibility of failure disables me and makes me vulnerable are still there. One of those is giving ‘expert’ presentations. Standing on a platform, being an expert on something, giving advice from a podium gives me serious imposter anxiety. I don’t like pontificating. I don’t like talking ‘at’ people. I feel vulnerable in a way I never do when in conversation with others where I love to listen and engage. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

No-one enjoys failure. No-one enjoys failing. However, working in the complex space, in uncertainty, just trying something is a useful strategy ... and whether our experiment or trial succeeds or fails, we will learn. Failure is just a detour not a dead end.