So here’s another popular TED Talk (I don’t know why TED Talks so often start with “so”). The gist of it is that effective communication, especially storytelling, syncs our brains. So when you say “I think we’re on the same wavelength”, it’s not just an expression; the waveforms that our brains are emitting are literally in sync with each other, because the same areas of our brains are performing the same functions.
The thing that gets me about this talk though, is the metaphor Uri uses to describe this “mental entrainment”. He sets off five metronomes at different intervals on a block of wood, then sets the block of wood on two cylinders, like this.
Over the next twenty seconds, the sound of five metronomes clicking randomly converges to a single beat. If you don’t have time to watch the whole video, just watch the minute from 3:20 where he runs the demonstration, as it’s the sound that makes it so powerful. It’s a beautful physical metaphor of what happens when communication is working well, and it’s particularly meaningful to me because trying to achieve this outcome with complex, systemic content is the purpose of my career. Not (I hasten to add!) because I want everyone to think the same. Quite the opposite – because the benefits of diversity are only felt when we have ways of understanding each other’s differences.
Now here’s the thing. Uri prefaces the illustration by saying “Watch what happens when we connect the metronomes using these two metal cylinders”. But of course, they already were connected, by a wooden plank. What the two cylinders add is not connection per se, but dynamic connection. In effective communication, there has to be some give, and that give often has to come from outside the system. You could use this as a lovely illustration of what good facilitation is like:. Imagine this is five silos in an organisation, or five family members who can’t talk to each other, or five people with different political persuasions. If you are trying to “unstick” the situation, you have to find a way to create some “give”, to ease people out of their regular beat, to find the common experiences with which everyone can resonate.
Knowledge and humility
Here’s another physical metaphor, this time from a SCIO Open Day I was at last week. There was a “LEGO Serious Play” exercise, and we were asked to depict the world of Systems Thinking. This was my effort, but there were a surprising number of similar examples along the lines of “middle-aged white men up a tower arguing with each other while the world destroys itself”:
I’m sure it’s not just the world of Systems Thinking that has this problem. Whenever people get deeply into a domain whose currency is abstract concepts and ideas, it becomes very easy to assume that other people are using the same abstract words to mean the same things, and then get upset over the ensuing disagreements. The problem is, the more we consider ourselves to be experts in a domain, the less we are likely to have the humility and curiosity to ask questions. And the less we ask questions, the less we appreciate that other people use the same words to mean different things i.e. the less “give” there is in the system.
So what is the “give” in your system? Where is your communication stuck? What groups do you see out of sync, and where you could help to bring resonance? And what is the nature of the “give” that you have to offer? I could go on about technical communication and facilitation skills – storytelling, messaging, structuring and so on – but I wonder if this is less about technical skills and more about curiosity. Or maybe those old fashioned virtues like humility, grace and respect.