How to Talk and How to Listen

July 2, 2017

Celeste Headlee (from a TED Talk, see here which includes a transcript)

There are quite a few posts on my blog that orient around the role and importance of face-to-face conversations. Some of these focus on actual events that promote and stimulate (group) conversations, such as the Knowledge Cafes pioneered by David Gurteen (for example, see here). Another aspect that interests me are the conversational skills we all have and, importantly, how these can be developed further.

This was brought home to me in a vivid manner a few years ago when I heard a talk on ‘how to have better conversations’ and approached the speaker afterwards with some queries. He then duly broke most of the advice he had just given out eg didn’t listen, didn’t ask questions, ignored my body language etc. Apart from being wryly amusing (not to mention disappointing), it provided a good example of the common disparity between theory and practice! That being said, I expect we’ve all done this at some time or other, or maybe we’ve simply been trained and educated to act this way?

In many organisations there are opportunities for developing communication skills (say through formal training) although these rarely seem to cover conversation. Conversation seems to be thought of as an ad hoc skill which you just ‘have’.

Anyway, this leads on to the funny and insightful TED talk (above) by Celeste Headlee (which has had over 3 million views). As she says, even if you master just one of the ways she recommends you’re doing great!

Interesting quote from the video: “Conversational competence might be the single most overlooked skill we fail to teach.”

After listening to this video, and as a trial, I’ve tried to ‘listen’ more and it really does work. I catch myself bursting to say something and then just say ‘let it go’ and it’s quite amazing how the conversation develops (the other person realises you really are paying attention to what they’re saying and are quite often surprised!). I’m now going to try a few of the other suggestions (see list below; mainly being briefer, staying out of the weeds and less repeating).

Another illuminating activity is to just listen to people having conversations and figure out what works and what doesn’t and then try to incorporate the better points. In TV interviews, repetition, unnecessary details and rambling really do stand out like a sore thumb.

Why not give one or two of the topics a go yourself, you may be (pleasantly) surprised at the results!

As a list, the ten points are (however, best to just watch the 12 minute video):

  1. Don’t multitask.
  2. Don’t pontificate.
  3. Use open-ended questions.
  4. Go with the flow.
  5. If you don’t know, say that you don’t know.
  6. Don’t equate your experience with theirs.
  7. Try not to repeat yourself.
  8. Stay out of the weeds.
  9. Listen.
  10. Be brief.

Nonlinear Thinking

June 19, 2017

Examples of some nonlinear relationships (from HBR article below)

From an article in the Harvard Business Review:

“In recent years a number of professions, including ecologists, physiologists, and physicians, have begun to routinely factor nonlinear relationships into their decision making. But nonlinearity is just as prevalent in the business world as anywhere else. It’s time that management professionals joined these other disciplines in developing greater awareness of the pitfalls of linear thinking in a nonlinear world. This will increase their ability to choose wisely—and to help the people around them make good decisions too.”

The article discusses some simple examples that might crop up in a marketing scenario.

Whilst knowing the relationship between quantities, even qualitatively, may be difficult to determine in practice, simply being aware that nonlinearity may be important could be enlightening and suggest alternative ways forward.


The Secret To Success Is Talking

May 24, 2017

From the Sunday Times (subscription required, so here’s an extract, published 7 May):

Becoming a billionaire could be really quite simple: make sure you receive no more than six work-related emails a day.

That, according to Sir James Dyson, whose family fortune has reached £7.8bn this year, is the secret to his success…

For Dyson it began 30 years ago, when he founded his vacuum cleaner company and banned staff from writing memos. He told them to talk to each other instead.

Even today he gives recruits old-fashioned exercise books and urges staff to use them in meetings instead of laptops.

He has built dozens of cafes at his work places “so people can have face-to-face communication. We’re creating things, working out how to sell them. You can’t do that on your own. You have to talk.”…

Perhaps it is a lesson for us all. If you log on and are faced with a screen of 300 emails, just remember: that is why you’re not a billionaire.

I knew someone in middle management who had a reputation for not replying to any email unless it was from someone of ‘significance’ (= on the Board of Directors and similar). Her view was that if it was really important someone would make contact with her, face-to-face or by phone, and they would sort things out that way. Oddly, she got away with this as everyone assumed she wouldn’t answer emails and so was only contacted when she was really needed and the matter was important! A natural filtering system. The rest of us had 300 emails a day to plough through. It would be interesting to know how many of these were actually of any real consequence (my guess is very few).

For another way to cull emails, see here.


The Verbal Landscape You Live In

May 17, 2017

Which one do you inhabit? At work and more generally. From a post by Seth Godin.


Handling Feedback

May 13, 2017

simple-jacket

I’m a big fan of cookery books, even though my level of expertise in that area is still rather low (although enthusiastic). There are a lot of things that are wrong with these books (I’m still rather vaguely thinking of writing one myself to correct these errors, if only for my own use). You can easily read about the common complaints (usually too many and/or difficult to find ingredients, loose practical instructions etc) in Amazon reviews (once you’ve excluded the gushing ones).

In one case (book given above), I was quite surprised to find that the author had taken the time to reply to these criticisms, which was quite unusual although delightful. It’s a pity this is not taken on board by more authors, it could be quite enlightening. In fact, whilst checking this post, it turns out that the author, Diana Henry, replies to quite a few comments, quite exceptional!

It’s illuminating comparing and contrasting the two viewpoints, with the answer (at least in my case) being to aim for somewhere in between (so the response of the author has certainly been worthwhile and helpful).

As an example, first a reader’s comment (an extract actually):

When the ingredients of a recipe go well into double figures – that’s not simple. When the ingredients include ‘nduja (that’s an actual ingredient and not a typo), sambal oelek, smoked almonds, black “venus” rice, fregola – that’s not simple. I’m not saying I won’t cook some of these dishes, but they won’t be for midweek meals for my family. And while I may consider around 40% of these recipes to be simple, there are probably less than ten that I would attempt to put on the table midweek.

There are dishes that I will cook, that I want to cook, but this is aspirational rather than inspirational cooking. Make sure you know what you’re buying, so it doesn’t end up another beautiful cookbook on your kitchen shelf that you never open.

and now the thoughtful reply (extracted, that follows the comment referenced above):

Dear Lesley,

I’m the author of Simple and I’m really sorry (especially as I am also the mother with plenty of fish fingers and ketchup on hand) that this book was a disappointment to you. I did write in the intro to the book that I think you need to have some unusual ingredients to make everyday food a bit more exciting…

You cite the sea bream with pomegranate and walnut stuffing. You just mix the ingredients for the fish, fill the cavity and put it in the oven. It’s one of the simplest dishes in the book…

There are no difficult techniques in this book at all – I am not a chef – but there are interesting ideas and combinations of flavours. You are clearly a cook – as you say there’s lots you want to make – but please try some dishes which seem more unusual. I think you’ll be surprised. Often they seem more complicated – because they’re unusual in some way – than they actually are…

Very best wishes,

Diana Henry


Clarify Your Uncertainty and Talk

May 9, 2017

Sage advice from the writer Tim Kreider:

The more time you spend immersed in the shitstream of TV/internet/social media the stupider and more boring and just like everyone else you will be. Hang out in real life having good conversations with brilliant and hilarious people, so you can steal their ideas and all the clever things they say. Spend a lot of time alone so you can think up some original thoughts of your own.

Spotted here.

I’ve noticed, in connection with an idea I’ve been developing, that chatting to friends about it for 30 mins (attempting to explain it in a couple of clear sentences, handling the immediate objections, taking on board some incredibly useful suggestions) far outweighs researching it on Google (and getting endlessly distracted) for 2-3 hours! It’s amazing how helpful people can be (if you let them).

This is well-visualised below (you’re tapping into what and who they know, see here):


The Death of Expertise

May 4, 2017

I’m still suffering from bouts of insomnia but one of the odd useful side-effects is that I listen to all sorts of radio programmes in the middle of the night. Some are quite fascinating and I get hooked although I usually doze off before it finishes. Often I can’t remember the names or details of the topic, just that it was interesting but some fortunately stick in the mind.

A recent example was an interview with Tom Nichols, who is the author of a book entitled ‘The Death of Expertise’ (Oxford University Press, 2017). The book discusses the blurring of the lines between fact and opinion as a cultural trend. In the current climate (US Trump plus UK Brexit) this is especially relevant.

I’ve not read the book (although I’ve ordered it) but here are some extracts from a detailed review:

“He (Nicols) sees the longstanding (probably perennial) shakiness of the public’s basic political and historical knowledge as entering a new phase. The “Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers” is like a lit match dropped into a gasoline tanker-sized container filled with the Dunning-Kruger effect.”

“Nichols devotes most of his book to identifying how 21st-century American life undermines confidence in expert knowledge and blurs the lines between fact and opinion. Like Christopher Hayes in ‘The Twilight of the Elites‘, he acknowledges that real failures and abuses of power by military, medical, economic and political authorities account for a good deal of skepticism and cynicism toward claims of expertise.”

“But one really interesting idea to take away from the book is the concept of metacognition, which Nichols defines as “the ability to know when you’re not good at something by stepping back, looking at what you’re doing, and then realizing that you’re doing it wrong.” (He gives as an example good singers: they “know when they’ve hit a sour note,” unlike terrible singers, who don’t, even if everyone else winces.)”.

Note (see here): The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is.

Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger attributed this bias to a metacognitive incapacity, on the part of those with low ability, to recognize their ineptitude and evaluate their competence accurately. Their research also suggests corollaries: high-ability individuals may underestimate their relative competence and may erroneously assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.