Ever heard of Conversational Intelligence?

NOTE: Today is my penultimate working day of 2017 (Yay!) and I wanted to share some learnings that I’ve found useful in this last quarter of the year. “Conversational Intelligence” by Judith Glazer is a must read, and the following is merely my own takeaway from her stellar work. This was meant to be a LinkedIn post, but all truth is parallel, they say, and the same principles that we can apply in a professional context to improve relationships are applicable in our personal life. So I’m sharing here. Feel free to take and apply whatever you need. Happy New Year!

Dysfunctional organisational culture. Toxic relationships. Self- doubt. Mistrust. Misaligned objectives. Perverse metrics. Silo-ed-approach to business. Misunderstandings. Wasted time. Defensivenes.

All of the above are directly related to the quality of the conversations we have. The culture of an organisation and the ease (or not) of interpersonal relationships do not exist in vacuum. Think about it. The intangible “this is how it is around here” results from how we relate to each other.
Courtesy Jane Genova
How Dysfunction Looks
Ever sat in a meeting, listened to the usual suspects pontificate on and on, listen to silence when feedback is solicited, leave the room and see the mini meetings taking place in huddles across the department? Ever wondered why your partner just can’t seem to understand why this is so important to you yet does nothing to change the way they operate? Ever yearned to get into your teenager’s head to understand just how the heck they came to make that decision to carry out that act? Ever stepped back aghast that your friend or colleague took offence to that off-hand remark you made the other day?
Meaning resides in the Listener
The person speaking assumes that what he means to convey is what the person on the other end understands. After all, words have meanings, and when put together in a sentence can only have one meaning, the meaning the speaker ascribes to the sentence. Right? Not so fast.
There is a difference between Intention and Impact. You see, both the speaker and the listener don’t exist in a sterile environment where the only variable are the words being bandied about. There is a context that absolutely determines how something is said and how it is interpreted. What is this context? It comprises a number of factors: past experiences, how the person was raised, personal values, expectations, …and biology.  Biology? Yes.
Courtesy The American Negotiation Institute
Why don’t they get it?
Uncertainty and fear are the two biggest hindrances to effective communication. They are the filters which have the biggest potential to distort meaning leading to the attributes that kicked off this essay. Where there is ambiguity, our brain naturally and instinctively fills in the gaps.
Simply put, our brains operate at two levels: a more primal, instinctive level where we react to unfamiliar, potentially hostile situations in a particular way, with the sole aim being self-preservation, the old fight or flight response, if you will. Then there’s our higher order brain which is more capable of interrogation, judgement, linking facts, and rational responses. This part of our brain does not operate instinctively, but we can learn how to train it such that we are more mindful and deliberate and intentional in how we converse with those around us.
Judith Glazer in her book “Conversational Intelligence” quite appropriately described what our brain does in the face of this uncertainty as “creating a script and playing a movie” that fills in the blanks in the World According to Us. In the face of ambiguity, our more primitive lower brain kicks in and creates a scenario where we go into protective mode. The result is a chain reaction of distrust which blocks effective communication.
But we can fix it!
Here is how we can, by understanding the biology at work, move beyond an instinctive posture to a more deliberate one aimed at creating constructive conversations:
1.       Listen without judgement. Listen. Make the effort to hear what the other person is saying without running them through your personal filters.
2.       Ask Discovery type questions. These are not yes or no answer questions. These are more how and why ones. Asking questions aimed at uncovering the real message being conveyed allows you the listener to suspend the judgement mentioned in 1. above and clears the path so that all that remains is What Is Meant to Be Conveyed.
3.       If you are the one conveying a message, then you have to be aware that the listener will most likely interpret what you are saying based on his own filters. This will force you to address fears and concerns that you think they have up-front in your messaging, again clearing the way for What Is Meant to Be Conveyed. You should also feel free to ask the listener to tell you what they got from what you were saying. This creates the opportunity to clarify and refine your message.
4.       An environment of openness and acceptance are a must for points 1 through 3 to flourish. Easier said than done though, right?  What if you are not the one in the position of leadership with the implied authority to create such and environment… is all lost?
No. YOU can contribute to a cleared pathway for effective communication by adopting points 1 and 2 above: listen without judgement and ask discovery type questions. In the absence of an open and accepting environment this could be difficult, but still doable. And slowly, you could see a paradigm shift in the quality of your own relationships with those around you. It’s a start.  
As we build our conversational intelligence we’ll see the quality of our conversations evolve along this continuum:
TELL/ASK >>>>>>>ADVOCATE/INQUIRE>>>>>>>>SHARE/DISCOVER
It is when we are operating in the share/discover mode that conversations are most productive and where dysfunction in relationships and culture disappear.
A Personal Commitment to Building Conversational Intelligence
Going forward, let us, wherever we are, regardless of our position of power in the relationship, seek to create a new context, one that minimises fear, doubt, uncertainty and ambiguity. Here are some suggestions as to how we can do this:
Maintain an open posture: be open to new thoughts and ideas and let this inform your body language and choice of words.
Display appreciation: saying thanks and acknowledging good quells fear. And that’s a good thing, right? Because fear distorts meaning and blocks understanding.
Focus on Discovery in the conversation rather than seeking to make your own point.
Practice Empathy and Curiosity: This narrows the gap between expectations and reality, the root of ambiguity and uncertainty.
Here’s to a 2018 where we level up and become better parents, partners, leaders and servants by creating a context where fear and ambiguity are minimized and where sharing and discovery can thrive, and conversations are meaningful and productive. 
Courtesy Wheeler Blogs

Transformation through Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Lessons from Israel

Twenty two years ago, while a post graduate student in the Botany Department of the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, I did a two month course at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Rehovot campus. Those were the glory days when USAID money flowed freely through the Jamaica Agricultural Development Foundation, with the aim of creating a cadre of agricultural scientists who could and would tackle Jamaica’s specific agricultural problems head on. I was one of several students who benefited from this funding. We pursued post graduate degrees in agriculture, engaged in on-farm research and solved real life problems.The Israeli government partnered with JADF in sponsoring our participation in this sub tropical horticulture course.
I was struck first of all by the aggression of the Israeli nationals on the El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv. They were noisy and boisterous and the Hasidic Jews on the flight had no problem congregating towards the rear of the aircraft to say prayers at the appointed time. Flight attendants were hard pressed to maintain order. I remember chuckling to my then 24 year old self at the realization that there were people that matched the aggression of Jamaicans.
The second thing that struck me during my stay in Israel was the obvious unity among the Israelis. The janitor who cleaned the labs was treated with the same respect as the professors churning out scientific breakthroughs, and both groups treated each other with respect. The sight of professors tutoring undergraduate students in the university cafeteria was a common one, very different from my own experience at UWI. Laboratories, classrooms and enclaves were constantly abuzz with activity and vigorous debate.  Knowledge was freely shared.
The other thing that impressed me, and that I still reference to this day, was Israel’s approach to problem solving. Israel is not a nation blessed with fertile arable land and to say that water supply is a challenge is perhaps an understatement. Yet they are the source of many agricultural breakthroughs today.  Think drip irrigation… placing water precisely at the root zone, adding nutrients to said water, enabled crop production on the most marginal of land. It was amazing to drive through the desert and see swatches of green springing up. This was problem solving at its best! How to farm in the desert? Don’t bring more water: use less more efficiently!
Israel produced temperate fruit crops like apples and pears right there in the desert. This allowed them to capitalize on the European markets that are typically out of stock of these products when traditional producers shut down during the winter periods. Israel could have accepted at face value that these crops could not be grown in their conditions because after all, there is a huge and obvious difference between Israel’s climate and that of the temperate producers. But not being satisfied with a simple, obvious answer, Israeli scientists dug deeper and determined that the bud break seen post winter in temperate climes is not as a result of weeks of subzero temperatures, but rather exposure for a specific, very narrow band of time to these temperatures and light conditions. They simulated these conditions on potted apple and pear trees in refrigerated containers and bud break ensued as they knew it would. Thereafter, it became a simple matter to move them to open fields in the desert, feeding and watering them via drip irrigation (what else?) and making a ton of money via elegant, empirical problem solving
So fast forward 22 years to today. We were bemoaning the sad state that Jamaica finds itself in today, where passing IMF tests has superseded our own vision for ourselves and our nation. We were bemoaning the absence of hope and opportunity for our children. We were bemoaning the apparent levels of corruption that compromise decision making and further impoverish us as a nation.  We bemoaned the apparent absence of leadership able to transform our circumstances.  I posited a model for economic development that called for community based enterprises to rise up, provide said leadership, generate economic activity and empower and enrich Jamaica one community at a time. This can only happen through an innovative, pragmatic approach to problem solving.
My father and sister recommended that I read Start Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle (Senor and Singer, 2011). Suspend your politics for a moment and consider the facts. Israel is a nation that was birthed only in 1948, described by Shimon Peres, former leader of Israel, as “a poor people coming home to a poor land”.  Israel’s only capital was its human capital. They were surrounded by their enemies. They faced numerous economic and political embargoes. Yet still Israel today boasts a phenomenal number of start-ups. They are undisputed leaders in the high tech world that drives product development and commerce today. The book explained the observations that I made two decades earlier.  Senor and Singer proffered a number of reasonable questions aimed at uncovering the reasons for Israel’s relative success: did Israel’s adversity, like necessity, breed inventiveness? Did Israel have more talented people than any other country in the world? Perhaps it was the moderating impact of their military, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). But other countries have faced adversity, have well developed militaries and possess any number of talents citizens.  Through a number of well documented examples, the authors offered the following as reasons for Israel’s entrepreneurial and innovative successes: tenacity, insatiable questioning of authority (I called it aggression) determined informality (remember the professors and students, ancillary workers and academic staff?) a unique attitude towards failure and risk, teamwork and a mission orientation, and cross disciplinary creativity. 
I have tried to identify parallels between Jamaica and Israel, seeking to identify jump off points for us as far as revving up entrepreurship and innovation are concerned. I will touch on the main issues I think that explain why we, unlike Israel, have not developed since coming into our own nationhood in 1962. I dare you to challenge that last statement by the way… we are NOT better off today than we were in 1962. 
 Jamaica exhibits a cultural paradigm that cuts across public and private sectors that I refer to as “a preference for form over substance”. The “right way” seems to be more important than the “right thing”. The result is that we waste time ensuring that we don’t cause offence and we appease the right people at the expense of true problem solving.  Committees are formed and meetings are held and announcements are made and this is all applauded even when there is no transformation resulting from these activities…form over substance. Perhaps, per Senor and Singer, we should reframe our interpretation of aggression as assertiveness rather than insolence, and instead of a label of insubordination, look at it as critical, independent thinking. 
Consider too how we treat failure and our approach to risk management. Every military exercise carried out by the IDF is followed by the all important de-briefing. Here is where actions and outcomes are dissected in order to extract those critical learning necessary to raise the bar the next time round. What I observe in the public sector is an entire absence of tracking against goals, and the commensurate analysis that should be done to understand the present state against a desired state. The only meaningful tracking of government performance against stated goals, is a private sector led monitoring of performance against the IMF agenda. Where is Vision 2030 today? My own experiences suggest that the very opposite happens in some private sector settings today. There is goal setting and tracking of performance against these objectives. But a so called undesirable outcome is dealt with by a change of personnel and quiet abandonment of the original plan rather than an empirical understanding of the failure so as to get it right the next time around.  There is very little understanding and appreciation for so-called “smart failures”.
I still struggle with exactly how my (admittedly partially thought through) community based model for development will lift us from our current quagmire. Sure, private enterprises can create internal cultures that run counter to national cultural paradigms of how we perceive authority, how authority perceives itself, form over substance and so on. And certainly, the national benefits to be derived from a private sector which successfully develops an entrepreneurial and innovative culture go without saying.  But I suspect that based on where we are today, there is a critical role that state leadership must play.  You see, Israel had the direct involvement of the state from the very beginning in terms of setting policy and providing funding and setting the direction.  Israel benefited from the pragmatism of Ben-Gurion in the early days, and later on from the tenacity and can (must) do attitude of subsequent leaders. Jamaica, unlike Israel, is blessed with an abundance of natural resources…we have fertile soil, water sources, and raw materials with which to create prosperity as long as we stop abusing our environment. We have a naturally feisty people, but over the years, a culture of patronage and a swapping of colonial subjugation for home grown, ineffective (and I’m being kind here) leadership have failed to leverage our natural inclination to buck the status quo.

Is it beyond us, is it too late for Jamaica to become an entrepreneurial, innovative country and reverse our current trajectory?

about responding and saying sorry

There are two phenomena that I observe too frequently these days, and I am pretty sure that they are deeply rooted in our national culture.
PLEASE ANSWER ME!  🙁
The Customs official simply did not answer my email the first time.  Nor the second time.  Not even the third time.  And it wasn’t because he felt as if he was better than me.  Nor was it because he couldn’t bother.  He couldn’t find the information needed to provide and answer and so he thought he couldn’t answer.  How do I know?  I got him eventually via phone and this is what was explained to me.
The Supervisor downstairs didn’t answer my email the first time.  Nor the second time.  Not even the third time.  Like the Customs official, he didn’t have the info to answer what I was asking.
The Buyer didn’t answer my query about the timing of the shipment.  Not because I had pissed her off one time too many (at least not in this instance), but because she didn’t have the info.
So why is it so difficult to acknowledge the email and explain what is happening? WHY? Even if you don’t have the answer that you feel the person is demanding, just give the answer you can nuh…please? Please?

APOLOGIES ARE INFRA DIG 🙁

Lord have mercy!  When will we as a people recognize that to apologise for someone else’s discomfort or bad experience is not a sign of weakness?  It is not even an admission of culpability.  It is a refined, civilized and mature display of empathy and at its simplest level, is merely an acknowledgement of someone else’s disappointment.
The Head of Department did not apologise for her team member’s rudeness to an outsider.
The Customer Service lady did not apologise for the absence of that critical item.
The doctor did not apologise for keeping her patients waiting.

But they should have. 
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