Things I thought we would have fixed by now

I think I must look on things a bit too simplistically.

I am convinced that we ought to be able to fix certain things, but as we haven’t fixed them in a long time then it’s clearly not as easy to fix them as I think it is.

Here are a few of the things that I thought we would have sorted by now, but haven’t. This is only a few, because once I got started I nearly couldn’t stop:

Media Conversion Dongles

How many bits of cable do you have in your laptop bag that convert one thing to another thing? I currently have four, the most used being the USB-C to HDMI converter. I limit the volume that I carry for personal health reasons, but the combinations are potentially huge. It’s not even enough to carry something that covers the four major standards – DisplayPort, HDMI, USB and VGA. Each of these standards has its own set of variant, there are three different sizes of HDMI and another three different sizes of USB, and that’s not including USB-C.

Meeting Room Equipment Connectivity

You walk into a meeting room, before you is a table with various cables sticking out of various sockets. This is one of those fancy rooms with a touchscreen interface that allows you to select various things like the position of blinds, the inputs to the visual equipment and the depth of the carpet pile.

You notice that one of the cables aligns with the video output on your laptop (for once you don’t need a media conversion dongle). You plug your device in, you select the correct input on the touchscreen interface and…nothing. You check that your laptop is sending a signal, which it is, but…nothing. You select other inputs on the touchscreen thing and apart from a brief excursion to a strange TV channel…nothing.

This is an important meeting so you came early but the clock has decided to go double-time on you and your set-up time is fast running out.

Eventually you get a picture on the huge 4K screen at the front, but for reasons no-one understands you can only get it to display 1024×768 resolution as a postage stamp in the middle.

You decide to forgo audio.

Why is this so difficult?

Permanent Markers on Whiteboards

Almost every meeting room I have ever been into has a collection of pens available for use, but they are nearly always a jumble of permanent and whiteboard markers. Next to this scattering of pens is often a pile of paper towels and an aerosol can containing a substance to get permanent marker off a whiteboard.

Why isn’t there a standard for the size or shape of the pens to make it easy to differentiate between whiteboard markers and permanent markers? Wouldn’t that be any easy solution to avoid the problem?

Yes, I know they normally say on them, but people don’t always look and one of the drawbacks of the substance in the aerosol can is that it also removes the markings from the outside of the pens.

Browser Switching

The browser is the basic access capability for the Internet so I would have expected it to have become a commodity by now, but I don’t think that a day goes by without me needing to switch between different browsers.

This wouldn’t be too bad, but the problems that I see with different browsers are all highly annoying glitches. I get part way through a process and something doesn’t look right, or something doesn’t load, or things just hang. I’d prefer that a particular browser failed to start a page than get part way through and then fail.

Printing

Why is this so, so, complicated?

I’m not, primarily talking about the physical handling of ink/toner and paper here although that can be a problem.

My challenge is the process of getting from device to desired output. I’m imagining all of those sheets of paper that you see around any office printer that contain one line of print on them. I’m also talking about those times when you just need one page of something, but somehow it manages to stretch itself out over five pages. Then there are those times when you send things to the printer and nothing prints, so you send it again, then you go to the printer and there are three copies of what you asked for. How does this happen?

Yes, I know I shouldn’t be printing anything, but there are times when paper is necessity.

Calendaring and Scheduling

How many online calendars do you have? I have at least 5.

Why so many? It’s because various tools form part of my scheduling experience and those calendars don’t work together. They each want to own the thing that I’m doing in their tool.

They each, helpfully, provide iCal export and import capabilities, but that’s not really practical and I shouldn’t have to be copying files around for something as basic as time management.

I can get a single view of all of these calendars together because there are tools for that, but that’s still not very helpful because no one can see my availability other than me.

Password

I don’t think I need to explain this one.

Why do we still have passwords?

Video Conferencing

If you do any video conferencing you’ll know that we still have a lot to do in this area. We can barely get audio conferencing working in many situation let alone seamless and reliable video.

For a while I tracked how much longer after the scheduled start time audio conferences started – the average was 6 minutes. Compare that to walking into a meeting room and getting started (without equipment – see earlier comment on Meeting Room Equipment Connectivity.)

People have tried all sorts of technical solutions to these problems but the reality is, if we are honest, none of them are what we really hoped for when we imagined seamless video communications.

Open Plan Offices

I’ll leave this one here.

More Features = Lower Utility

There are many situations when I want to buy a new something but the new features that have been added to the latest model of the something make my heart sink. In many situations the new features take away from the primary purpose of the something.

I used to have a Bluetooth headset that only connected to one device. It was difficult to get connected, but once it was connected it worked. Then it broke. I bought myself a newer version of the headset with the promise that it was easy to connect and could connect to more than one device. This new headset does indeed connect to more than one device, unfortunately it gets confused about which device is playing sound and it’s almost impossible to make it switch. It even loses connection when it’s only paired to one device. The two-connected-devices feature destroyed the utility of the headphones.

I have more examples, but I won’t bore you with them now because this post is already long enough.

Are we really so desperate for new features that we are willing to compromise the primary reason for buying the item?

How about you?

I’m sure that I’m not the only one?

How do I have fascinating conversations? | Questions?

Some conversations are better than others – agreed?

Some people appear to have far more fascinating conversations than the rest of us – agreed?

Why is that? That’s the subject of this set of posts.

It’s worth a bit of a recap of where we have got to so far. In the first post I looked at some of the anti-patterns for fascinating conversations, sometimes looking at the opposite of something helps us to see the way to a positive outcome. Whilst each one of these anti-patterns were defined in the form of a person, I acknowledge that I’ve been every one of these people and I suspect I’m not alone in that. In the second post I looked at the impact of listening on these anti-patterns and in particular we looked at the power of reflective listening. I also introduced a new anti-pattern the Reflection Robot.

Imagination Time

You have been invited by a friend to a celebration. As you walk into the venue you recognise that there are people there from the various sections of your friend’s life, some are family, some are friends like yourself, some are work colleagues, there are also people there from the charity where they help out. You look around and see some people you know sat around a table, but there isn’t any room left at that table. As you look at the other tables you realise that there are only two seats left at a table where you aren’t sure that you know anybody, and what’s more you aren’t sure how these people relate to your friend. You can’t stay standing all night, so you and your partner sit down.

You turn to the person next to you and you say “Hi.”

They say “Hi.” in response.

Conversation protocol dictates that it’s your turn next. The other person is looking at you expecting an interaction.

You are convinced that the next words to come out of your mouth will significantly impact upon the rest of your evening.

What do you say? Do you make a statement? Do you ask a question? Do you play it safe and ask one of those questions that you know will get a safe response? Do you go bold and try to open the conversation to going somewhere interesting but risk looking a bit weird?

You decide to go safe “My name’s [name], how do you know [friend]?”

Inwardly you are disappointed by your lack of courage expecting a suitably safe response. There are a number of possible responses, but you know that the answer is likely to be a bit dull.

They respond “Hi [name], pleased to meet you, I’m William and [friend] and I work together. How do you know [friend]?”

This response has set the course of the conversation for the next few minutes. In the case of a work colleague my next response generally leads to quite a short conversation. When you tell people “I work at an IT Consultancy” their response is often quite short. I’ve thought about finessing the answer to this question to help people out a bit, but never settled on a set of words which enabled people to stay engaged in the conversation.

Questions are such an important part of conversations. Asking great questions is a skill. Actively listening, and asking great questions, are the basic ingredients of fascinating conversations.

What do we learn from the Anti-Patterns?

Let’s keep it a bit shorter this time, I think we are starting to get to know these anti-patterns now.

THE SOAKERS

Soakers are easy – they don’t ask question.

You ask them questions and they respond and before you know it you’ve run out of questions. If you’ve ever been the one asking the questions you’ll recognise how tiring this is.

I suspect that most Soakers can be turned around, but I don’t have a formula to achieve that and I’m rarely successful at it. What I will say is that I think that there is a link between the Soaker and the quality of the questions that we ask but I don’t want to make the questioner the one responsible for the entire interaction.

THE SMART BOMBERS

The Smart Bomber makes statements, they don’t ask questions. There’s a secondary challenge here though, quite often it’s difficult to know what the follow on question to the statement should be. The statement is so often so far from the flow of the conversation prior to it that no-one knows what questions to ask and quite often just stare at each other wondering what just happened.

THE AGENDA ENFORCERS

The Agenda Enforcer, does, at least, normally start with a question. The problem is the question being asked and timing of that question. Rather than going with the flow of the conversation that is already taking place, they want to push a conversation in a particular direction by enforcing their question into the flow.

THE DISTRACTED DISTRACTORS

Asking questions requires engagement in the conversation, if you are distracted, you aren’t going to give the level of engagement required. The question you are most likely to ask, as a Distracted Distractor is “Pardon? What did you say?”

THE NON-STOP TALKERS

One of the strange things about Non-Stop Talkers is that they do, sometimes, ask questions, what they don’t do is wait for responses.

“Do you remember when I fell down the stairs? I do it was so painful, I had to call for an ambulance. Do you remember how long it took for the ambulance to arrive? It must have been 2 hours. Did you stay here with me all that time? You did didn’t you…” I’ve put punctuation in here to make it readable, but often these people talk without punctuation.

THE GUESSING FINISHERS

I suppose that the Guessing Finisher is permanently asking question. Each time they guess a word they are really asking a question, they’ve not very good questions, but questions all the same.

THE REFLECTION ROBOTS

This is the new anti-pattern from last time. I did receive some feedback from someone who thought I was being a bit harsh on counsellors in this anti-pattern, this wasn’t my intention, actually it was the opposite of my intention. Rather than providing constructive reflection the Reflection Robot is using a reflection formula to bounce the question back without actually engaging in the conversation. The questions are there, but they are without feeling or interpretation. Good counsellors don’t use a formula for their reflective questions.

What have we learned?

The anti-patterns have told us a number of different things:

  • Some questions are more interesting than others.
  • Asking the right question for the situation is important.
  • Asking the right question at the right time is even better.
  • Even the right question at the right time isn’t always enough.
  • Don’t forget to listen to the responses.
  • There can’t be a formula for questions.

How do we know what a great question is?

This is one area where the internet is littered with advice, far too much of it to know where the golden nuggets are, so here are some observations from a mediocre asker of questions (me):

  • Be prepared – If you are going to have a fascinating conversation you need to start well. Starting well requires you to ask good questions from the beginning.
  • Be sensitive – The right question depends on the depth of the conversation. Most conversation don’t start deep, they become deep. If you force a conversation too deep too quickly it will stall. Shallow conversations generally aren’t fascinating.
  • Be natural – You need to bring something of yourself into the questions that you ask. The best quesitons are the ones that would fascinate you.
  • Be open – Yes or No answers don’t lead to a fascinating conversation. The trick is to learn to ask questions that solicit an open response. Example: “What is it that you love about your job?” generally results in a better response than “Do you love your job?” to which the answer is Yes or No.
  • Be reflective – Reflective listening is a skill and works well with reflective questions.
  • Be responsive – The best questions are often follow-on questions, by which I mean, questions that build upon the previous response.

If you’d prefer the advice of others try these on for size:

In summary I think that these two quotations will suffice:

“To be interesting, be interested.”

Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”

Voltaire

Header Image: We live quite close to some gorgeous Lancashire countryside. The other night we decided to go for an explore and enjoy the sunset. The lambs in the fields were particularly excited to see us.

How do I have fascinating conversations? | Are You Listening?

Are you a good listener? I can be a good listener, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. I suspect that most of us struggle a bit.

Every conversation is an exchange of ideas, with some exchanges being deeper than others. A conversation usually requires someone to be talking, but it’s not a conversation unless someone is listening. Even then, someone talking and someone listening isn’t a conversation that’s just a speech, to be a true conversation the role of talker and listener has to change. Most people don’t struggle with the talking side, the struggle is with the listening part.

In the book “Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age” Edward Hess describes it like this:

You may think that you’re already a good listener. I (Ed) thought I was, but after truly digging into what it means to listen “reflectively,” I realized that in fact I interrupted people frequently to finish their sentences or to put forth what I thought was the answer. I often was creating my response in my head while people were still talking. In fact, I was a very poor listener. I did everything wrong. I listened for cues as to whether I had an opening to make my point. I “read” people to accomplish my objectives. Most of my conversations had a personal objective. I was not into casual conversations that I considered idle chitchat. I looked at a conversation in most cases as a transaction—as a vehicle to accomplish something. My mind wandered a lot when I “listened.” I got bored, and if I didn’t actually interrupt, I fidgeted and lost eye contact with the speaker. Winning, looking smart, and telling what I “knew” to advance my cause were my only purposes in listening to others. Today it’s embarrassing to write that. I was a piece of work. I was an awful listener at home and at work.

Hess, Edward D.. Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (p. 116). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

In the book Hess goes on to describe the characteristics of “Reflective Listening” something that the book regards as a core skill for the future workforce:

To be a good listener you have to be totally focused on the speaker with an open mind. You have to listen in a nonjudgmental way, with the only goal being to try to understand what the other person is saying before you prepare and deliver your response. Good listeners ask questions to make sure that they understand before responding, or they paraphrase and repeat back what they believe that the person said and ask if they’ve understood correctly. Good listeners then reflect, and as Bourne explained to me, they “try on” the other person’s idea to see how it would feel if they believed that, too. Taking the time to slow down and try on a new idea and see how it feels is what we mean by Reflective Listening.

Hess, Edward D.. Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (p. 117). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Is this second description you? Or do you identify more with the first one?

Whether you call it Reflective Listening or not, I suspect that many of us can think of people who embody this kind of listening – but they aren’t the protagonists in our anti-patterns.

Listening and the Fascinating Conversation Anti-Patterns

Let’s take a look through the anti-patterns that I outlined last time and see what they have to tell us about listening.

The Soakers

For a fascinating conversation to occur it’s important that both of the people are playing their part, talking and listening.

The problem with The Soaker is that they only have one mode, talking. They respond to questions, but they aren’t in any sense, listening to the person asking the questions, nor are they asking reflective questions of the other members of the dialogue.

You through a ball against a wall and the wall bounces the ball back. It’s fun for a while, but it’s not a fascinating game of tennis.

There are times that no matter how hard you try as a listener, your correspondent isn’t going to make the grade required to turn the conversation into a fascinating exchange. The danger with that statement is that we give up too early on what could, given the right questions from us, become a fascinating conversation.

The Smart Bombers

These are the people who destroy the flow of a conversation by exploding a statement-bomb in the middle of it.

Smart Bombers are not listeners, they have something to say and they are going to say it even if it’s only barely connected to the conversation that’s already underway. The only thing that they are listening for is a gap into which they can make their statement, and they don’t always do that.

Listeners aren’t statement makers. Listeners ask questions.

The Agenda Enforcers

The Agenda Enforcers, those people who insist on a conversation following their set agenda, are sometimes good listeners, but more often than not they aren’t listening at all.

There are times when a conversation needs to follow an agenda to get to the required outcome or the needed interaction. In these instances, the Agenda Enforcer needs to be listening to the interaction and to keep it going in the required direction. These aren’t generally fascinating conversation, but sometimes they can be.

Where Agenda Enforcers generally fall down is in their need to control the dialogue too tightly. They often do this from the start. Many of us will recognise those situations where a discussion is taking place between members of a team about a subject only for the Agenda Enforcer to enter and say, “Right then, progress update.”

Everyone in the room is thinking “You mean the progress we were just talking about and the progress you’d understand if you’d only just sat and listened for 10 seconds.”

the Distracted Distractors

Many of us are so easily distracted that the slightest thing will drag us away from an interaction.

Listening isn’t a passive activity, it requires effort and focus – it requires attention. The Distracted Distractor’s lack of attention is still communicating, it’s communicating on many levels but probably the loudest thing it’s saying is “I don’t care about this conversation.”

Listening says “I care about this conversation.”

There are practical things that we can do to reduce our level of distraction, removing the primary distractions being the main one.

I, like many, get distracted by screens, so I try to remove them from the situation. When I get home in an evening, I place my iPhone in the study which, for me, is conveniently by the front door. The aim is for it to stay there all evening. This weekend we were at some friends for lunch and I wanted to be as engaged as I could in the conversation so as soon as I entered the house I placed my phone and keys in another room on a shelf and set to silent (the phone). When we do things like this it doesn’t take us long to forget that the screens are even there, we are just as easily distracted from our distractions.

the Non-Stop Talkers

I don’t think I need to say much here. Those people who won’t stop talking are only listening to one person and that’s themselves.

Listening in these situations isn’t easy and there are a couple of reasons for this. The first one is that the Non-Stop Talker is expecting far too much of our ability to retain information. If we are given too much information in one go we simply shut down. The other reason is, and it’s difficult to admit this, we get bored.

I’ve not, yet, found a good way of breaking into a monologue from the Non-Stop Talkers. Even when I have managed to interrupt it’s generally resulted in them returning to their monologue quite soon afterwards.

The Guessing Finishers

Let’s start with a positive statement for The Guessing Finishers – they are listening to the conversation; you need to listen to the beginning of a sentence if you are going to finish it for someone. The problem is that they are impatient listeners and that’s not good listening. Finishing someone’s sentence is not reflective listening. Great listening requires patience and time.

I have a friend who had a stroke some years ago this impacted her speech and her ability to recall words. Sometimes she does need help with a word, but she’ll ask if she does. Having a conversation with her can take a long time but what she has to say is always worth listening to.

When we are tempted to become a Guessing Finisher we need to slow down and to listen.

A New Anti-Pattern

Having reviewed our existing anti-patterns it occurs to me that we need a new one when we think about listening:

The Reflection Robots

I’ve done a couple of courses with the aim of building my listening skills. Each of these courses focused on a form of reflective listening based on a number of techniques. This anti-pattern comes out of a caricature of those sessions.

You are sat in a small room where there is some occasional furniture, but the most obvious furniture is two armchairs occupying the middle of the room. They are strategically placed at a 45-degree angle with a small coffee-table between them.

In one of the chairs is seated a person (you decide whether it’s a man or a woman, both are applicable) who is wearing safe casual clothes. Around their neck is a decorative scarf (I have no idea why these people like scarves so much). Their back is straight, their legs are bent with knees together and their hands are placed palm to palm with fingers intertwined resting on their lap.

They beckon you to sit down, which you do. You’re not quite sure how to sit and adjust your position a few times before accepting that you are now as comfortable as you are going to get. Without realising it you are now sat with your back straight…your legs bent and knees together…and your hands are, yes, palm to palm with fingers intertwined resting on your lap.

The person in the chair 45-degrees from you tilts their head to one side and asks in the softest voice you’ve ever heard “How can I help you?”

You then go on to explain that you’ve been feeling a bit glum recently.

They respond by saying in a voice that sounds like marshmallow “What I am hearing from you is that you are feeling a bit glum at present, is that correct?”

You reply that they understood correctly, and that the glumness had been continuing for some time.

They respond by stating in a cotton-wool tone of voice “What I am hearing from you is that your glumness has been continuing for some time, is that correct?”

You look at them and ponder whether Alexa would ask better questions, but you continue. You explain that you think the glumness started when you were recently upset by an incident with a close friend.

They respond, with their head still tilted at the same angle “What I am hearing from you is that your glumness started when an incident with a close friend occurred, is that correct?”

It’s then that you realise that you are paying for this.

This is not reflective listening, this is not a fascinating conversation, this is interacting with a robot.

How do I learn to listen?

There are some techniques to listening and some practical things that make listening better. There are a number of good articles and many good books available to help you understand these techniques. I’ve picked a few:

What you will understand from reading each of these articles is that there are techniques to help you become a good listener, but that truly great listening is a skill that requires practice. You’ll also notice that listening skills are linked to other of the so-called “soft skills”.

The great thing about developing the listening skill is that there are so many opportunities to practice. Imagine how far you could get if each conversation you had was just a little bit better than the one before.

I’m off now to find a scarf and to practice holding my head to one side.

How did that make you feel? 😉

How do I have fascinating conversations? | The anti-patterns

How good are you at conversations? I think I’m in the “OK, but not great” group of people. I know people who are brilliant at turning even the most mundane encounter into a fascinating interaction, I also know people who struggle with conversing and some who are conversation murderers.

I can have fascinating conversations, but I’m not great at it. I can also find myself in the conversation wilderness wondering where the best route out is.

Conversations are a skill which I believe can be developed and improved. I’m expecting this post to be the first of a series, I’ve not planned the series out (which is unusual) but I know that I have more to say than this single post, at least. Hopefully, we’ll learn some new skills along the journey.

The Fascinating conversation Anti-Patterns

Before we understand how we have fascinating conversations, let’s start with the opposite, the characteristics of terrible conversations. As I’ve been thinking about conversations in recent weeks and months I’ve come across a number of anti-patterns that interrupt an interaction and leave it flapping around with nowhere to go, I’m sure that there are plenty more and each of these is just a caricature, but sometimes those caricatures teach us something.

The Soakers

You are placed next to someone at a dinner who you don’t really know and you think that it might be fun to get to know them. You turn and say “Hi” or something equivalent.

They say “Hi” back and all appears to be good. They haven’t snarled at you which is always a bonus and they aren’t so shy that they can’t enter a conversation.

Having made the initial advance it’s time to get started and you reach for one of your semi-interesting opening questions: “What do you do?” or even “How long have you know {name of host}?” perhaps “Do you have family?” may be appropriate.

Whichever question you choose will be answered, but the answer will give little away. The respondee may talk for several minutes, but somehow what they say gives you no footing for a follow-on question about their answer.

You wait a second to see if they want to ask you a question, but that doesn’t appear to occur to them.

Your left with few options and decide to pick another question from the list while still hoping to gain an insight that opens up an avenue of insightful conversation.

Again it is answered, but still little is revealed.

You wait a few more seconds to see if they will ask you a question, again nothing. Your inner voice wonders why they don’t want to ask you a question.

The list of semi-interesting opening questions is starting to look a bit depleted, but you persevere.

Another answer, still no opening.

Still no question in response. Your inner-voice wants to shout at them “ASK ME A QUESTION!” but you are far too polite for that.

You return to your list of questions and decide that the next one on the list is just too boring to ask.

The conversations dies from lack of interest and you look around the rest of the table for someone, anyone, to talk to.

The Smart Bomber

You are stood with a group of people you know reasonably well and the conversation is OK, but not quite fascinating. You’re enjoying the interaction and everyone is contributing.

Then someone joins the conversation.

Within seconds they have contributed to the conversation.

The conversation is now dead.

Silence.

The flow of the conversation was stopped by the contribution of the newest member of the group.

Everyone looks at each other desperately seeking a way of restarting the movement of words but time is running out fast. The conversational heartbeat is flat-lining. Quick, someone, do something, but no rescue is coming and everyone stands there in a silence that gets ever more uncomfortable.

Eventually the silence becomes too painful and the group disperses or breaks own into factions that each start their own, new, flow.

What did the newcomer say? There’s no simple way to define what was wrong with their contribution other than to characterise it as smart. Like many English words smart has a positive and a negative meaning – I’m using the negative meaning in this context. I’m talking here about statements for which there is no reply other than to say “Pardon? (You Muppet)” Politeness precludes anyone from saying this, politeness also stops us ignoring the comment and returning to the state we were in a few seconds earlier.

Notice that I describe these contributions as statements, because they are very rarely questions.

The smarts bomb has exploded and we are all left picking up the pieces.

The Agenda Enforcer

You join a teleconference early and discover that a number of your colleagues are also on the call early and so you say “Hi” and ask a question “How is everyone today?”

One of your colleagues chooses to respond with an insight into some planned special events in their office where things are going particularly well, they’ve been working on this for weeks and are quite excited about the outcome. Another colleague comments in a similar way and asks others in the group about their experiences. Other excited responses follow.

This is when the Agenda Enforcer enters the conversations and says “Today we are going to go around the call and I want each of you to report on how you are getting on with the planned special events? Who wants to start?”

This agenda item is exactly the conversation that you have just been having but no no-one wants to start. No-one wants to give a report, you were happy to have a conversation, but the conversation has left the call.

In your mind you are wondering why the Agenda Enforcer didn’t just let the conversation carry on flowing while also bubbling with anger for the interaction that was needlessly lost. Why did they feel the need to be in control?

The Distracted Distractor

You are sat in a one-to-one conversation in a coffee shop and have found great seats next to the window. Outside is a busy high-street and it feels like most of the rest of the world is going past the plate-glass facade.

The conversation is going well, you’ve caught up on some things and moved a little beyond the semi-interesting opening questions that such occasions demand. You are in the process of asking the person opposite you another question when they look out of the window and say “Have you seen that?”

You look out of the window to see a car driving illegally down the middle of the pedestrianised area. Your companion comments about the daftness of the person who has got themselves in such a mess.

After a few more choice words they ask “Where were we?”

You restate your question and they reply, but part way through their reply they again point out of the window “Look at that, they’re coming back the other way now!”

Again they ask “Where were we?” and you remind them.

A little further through their answer their phone rings, they take it out of their pocket and answer it. After a short conversation they end the phone call but continue to interact with the apps on their phone. You sit waiting, patiently, waiting, in silence, waiting.

Eventually they look up and say “Where were we again?” At this you stare intently at their phone. You flick a switch in your pocket and laser beams blast from your eyes instantly turning the phone into ash. Or, you reach over, take the phone from their hands and drop it into their drink. Or, something like that, or perhaps that’s just me.

A conversation is a flow of ideas and information, without the flow there is no conversation. In general the flow only goes in one direction, forwards. Stop-start is uncomfortable and going backwards is painful.

The Non-Stop Talker

Do I need to describe this person? You know who they are straight away. I suspect that you can picture them without prompting, if you can’t then perhaps this person is you.

They are the person who only needs one question to set them out on a track that gets ever more detailed in its telling, ever more irrelevant in its recounting.

They are the person who is convinced that you care whether it was last Tuesday, or perhaps Wednesday, or no it was Monday.

They know that you know how important time is and whether it happened at 11:05, or 10:45, or no it must have been about 11:15 because it was after the bus had left for town, you know the one, the one that is supposed to leave as 10:58, but always leaves at 11:08.

They know that it’s important that the item cost £11.98, or was it £11.95.

In short, they are verbally hyperactive and you only EVER ask them one question. You simply don’t have enough time to ask them more than one.

The Guessing Finishers

You are sat across the table from a work colleague. You are in a conversation and colleague asks you a question.

You steadily formulate an answer to the question because it’s a wonderful open question that requires an open answer.

Part way through your response you breath and pause a little. In that moment your colleague decides that you need help with your answer and start guessing.

Their first guess is utterly wrong and has you wondering whether they’ve been in the same conversation. You answer with a simple “No”. Their second guess is even more random and your “No” has become a bolder “No”. Why would they think that you would mean that? The third answer doesn’t even make sense and your “No” has become “NO”.

You are now stuck into the loop that uses all of your cognitive energy to answer their guesses and there is little remaining energy to find and give the answer that you were looking for in the first place.

The two of you eventually, somehow, find the missing word without you having to stand up and shout out “NO!!!” There is sweat beading on your neck from the stress.

Your corespondent then asks you another question and your anxiety levels hit max. You pause, trying to construct a whole answer so that you avoid the guessing game, but your stress levels make this almost impossible to achieve.

A wonderful, fascinating, flowing conversation has been replaced by an internal war with stress. The flow has left and the conversation will soon die for lack of freedom.

Learning from the Anti-Patterns

Recognise any of these? Perhaps you are some of these? I suspect that each of us has done each of these things at some point in our life, the wise thing to do would be to learn from these mistakes.

I’m planning to look into the anti-patterns for fascinating conversations as a way of improving my own interactions.

Header Image: This picture was taken on a recent climb up Crinkle Crags in the March snow. The snow was fresh from overnight showers completely covering any visibility of paths – interesting

Stop the Self-Inflicted Pain | Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we let others do it to us?

Do two posts make a series? Anyway, this is second post looking at some modern-day frustrations where we look inside things that we do that are daft and dangerous. Some of them you may not realise are doing you damage, others probably already drive you a bit loopy. Part 1 is here: Stop the Self Inflicted Pain | How Much Better Could Your Life Be?

We have three more topics for today:

Devices in Meetings

What is the purpose of a meeting? Do you know? In almost every case, the addition of screens into that meeting is harming that purpose.

Most meetings that I attend, if I attend in person, are based around a large table. The table is littered with laptops, phones and tablets. People join the meeting with every intention of contributing wholeheartedly to it, but within minutes they are distracted. They don’t mean to be, but they are powerless to stay away from the distracting movements that are occurring before them.

“But” I can hear you say…

“But, what if I want to take notes electronically?” If you are far more disciplined than me, then perhaps you can have a powerful, internet connected, multi-skilled device there in-front of you and only use it to take notes. If that is you, then I take my hat off to you, but it’s still not as good for you as writing notes.

“But, what if I need the material off my laptop to inform the meeting?” That may be a perfectly valid point, but it should be limited and clearly understood in the objectives for the meeting, often it’s an excuse.

“But, what happens if someone needs to contact me?” This is the ultimate expression of the problem. If you take a device into a meeting because you think that someone may need to contact you, then you will be spending a significant amount of time in that meeting distracted by the potential that someone is going to contact you. “Has my phone run yet?” “What’s was that email that has just come in?”

Multi-tasking

One of the main reasons that devices in meetings is such a bad idea is that it draws us into multitasking and we are very poor at multitasking.

There are numerous experiments that show our inability to task switch, but perhaps we need the kids to show us how it is (not) done:

There’s also growing evidence that the impact of persistent multitasking is lasting harm. You’re less effective while you are multitasking, but you are also permanently numbing down your brain.

Aside from the impact on our brains there are situations where multitasking is downright dangerous. Those of you who still think you can text and drive are kidding yourself:

It has become normal many of us to multi-screen in front of the TV every night. Even if we are only using our tablet or phone while the adverts are on, we are still expecting our brains to multitask. Those advert may be annoying, but rather than picking up a screen we would be much better standing up and having a stretch.

This isn’t a new subject for me, but we still have a very long way to go before people listen.

Open Plan Offices

Once the darling of every office manager the open plan office is a disaster for productivity.

You don’t need to look any further for evidence of this than this invention from Panasonic:

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These are a pair of blinkers for the office, for those times when you need some peace and quiet to get your job done! Seriously!

Again, I hear that “but” word entering into your head. The primary “but” for open plan offices is: “But, doesn’t it improve communication between teams and enable more creative interactions?” Let me put it as simply as I can: “No.”

Open plan offices drive down interactions:

The results were stark: after the shift to an open-plan office space, the participants spent 73 per cent less time in face-to-face interactions, while their use of email and instant messenger shot up by 67 per cent and 75 per cent respectively.

Most people spend their time in an open plan office with headphones plugged in which makes it difficult to know whether they are one a phone call so it’s normal to instant message them, even if they are on the next desk.

How many more things?

That’s eight different areas that we’ve covered in two posts, I wonder how many more there are? Imagine if each one improves your productivity, or wellness, by just 2% we would have improved our lives by at least 16%!

Posting to My Facebook Profile – No More

I’m no longer posting from this blog to Facebook. It’s not because I’ve decided that I no longer want to post a link to Facebook. It is because Facebook have decided that they want to take away the ability for services to do that posting to my profile on my behalf.

I used to use the publicize features WordPress to send an update as I published a new post straight to Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter, but Facebook have removed the capability to post there. I’ll still post to LinkedIn and Twitter.

Previously the way to do this was through a service like IFTTT, but they were using the same API and no longer work either.

There is an alternative, and that is to create a Facebook Page for my blog and to get the posts published there. That would require everyone I know on Facebook to also subscribe to my Facebook Page and I think that they probably have better things to do.

I could, also, click a few buttons and do it manually, but life’s too short for that.

So, for now, there will be no updates from my blog onto my Facebook Profile. But, if your normal interaction with me is via Facebook this post probably makes no difference to you, because you don’t know it exists, because this post won’t get posted on my Facebook Profile either. You won’t know what you don’t know.

“When a thing is funny, search it carefully for a hidden truth.”
George Bernard Shaw

Update: As others have reminded me, Buffer is also impacted by this change, so any updates I would have posted from Buffer won’t be coming from that route either.

I’m Reading: “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy” by Cathy O’Neil

We are surrounded by algorithms. We are constantly being evaluated by criteria that is invisible to us.

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What I see on Google is different to what you see. What I see on Facebook is different to your perspective and not just because I have access to different thing to you.

I pay for insurance for a number of things, the cost of that insurance is governed by a set of parameters that are unknown to me; many of which I can’t change or even validate whether they are correct.

Weapons of Math Destruction explores some of these algorithms and their impacts on individuals and society in general.

Statisticians have known that many statistics have a dark side creating unintended consequences and perverse outcomes. As we increasingly use data, and the associated statistical algorithms, we need to understand the dangers of the perverse outcomes that we are creating.

Cathy O’Neil uses examples to illustrate the challenges that we are facing. The bulk of the book is examples of Weapons of Math Destruction (WMD) that already exist. There are examples for algorithms being used for politics, employee candidate selection, criminal justice, insurance, education ratings and advertising, to name just a few. The extent of these algorithms means that it’s unlikely that you haven’t been impacted in some way by one of them, but how do you know that the assessment of you is fair, or even accurate. How do you know what parameters have been used to calculate your insurance premium?

In many of the areas outlined in the book the unintended consequences lead to significant mistreatment of individuals and whole people groups. Many of these people groups being the same people groups that have been mistreated by society for generations – the poor, those living in certain neighbourhoods, ethnic minorities and women being particularly negatively impacted.

The book talks about a lot of examples and raises a lot of questions and concerns, the book doesn’t spend a lot of time exploring the potential resolutions to the issues raised. There are a few great thoughts in that direction but it’s not that primary topic for this book.

I’m quite sure that we don’t, yet, have the necessary regulatory framework in place for these algorithms. I’m also convinced that we will make progress towards the right framework, but in the interim, damage is being caused.

I read this book in the middle of a political and media storm about an organisation called Cambridge Analytica who collected data from Facebook on 50 million people. This story was pioneered by The Guardian with a lot of coverage on 17th March 2018 quoting whistleblower Christopher Wylie, but it’s worth noting that Cathy O’Neil’s book was published in September 2016 and contains many of the same details about Cambridge Analytica that we now regard as shocking. Perhaps news doesn’t travel as quickly as we think it does.

I was first prompted to read this book by Cathy’s TED talk which will give you an idea of the WMD that she has collected: