Barriers to communication: “Auditory Clutter”

A few days ago while having breakfast, my wife and I were listening to The Today programme. Just after 7am Michelle Hussein interviewed a Professor of Pediatrics about the increasing incidence of Strep A in children and what could be done to prevent an expansion. Ten minutes later in the business round up, prompted no doubt by the recent collapse of FTX, there was an interview with the Editor of a financial journal about proposed crypto market regulation.

Both interviewees were knowledgeable yet while Ana and I could not recall much from the second we could recall most of the first. Why?

It wasn’t jargon, or technical terminology, that obstructed our hearing it was what Ana described as “Auditory Clutter”. As Managing Director of Bees Homes, she draws on an Interior Designer background in selling unique homes. Part of her expertise is to decluttter a property and stage it so prospective buyers can imagine themselves living there.

I would argue the same applies in communication. If we declutter our spoken words it makes it easier for the listener to grasp the message we are trying to convey and not get lost in redundant words. Interestingly, in the context of speech, “Cluttering” is described on Wikipedia as:

… a speech and communication disorder characterized by a rapid rate of speech, erratic rhythm, and poor syntax or grammar making speech difficult to understand.”

So, back to The Today interviews, what were the differences? In the first, responses were delivered at a considered pace, with good diction, a relaxed (almost Pilot like) manner, and a total absence of filler words. In the second, we lost count of the number of Ums and Ers; by the end we were listening to those and not the essence of the message.

Here’s a challenge. Next time you are talking to a group or a friend get them to count how many of these filler words or phrases they hear you say:

  • So
  • You know
  • I mean or You know what I mean
  • Like, as in, I was like
  • Er, Erm or Um, OK, right
  • Yeah

If you don’t think it matters, take a look at this sentence I heard someone utter recently, “English is like, totally fun to learn, you know”. If you remove the filler or redundant words “English is fun to learn” is more succinct and comprehensible.

An English phenomenan?

Lest you think this is purely an English phenomenan think again. In my adopted country Portugal, filler words play an important part in day to day conversations as I found when taking a language course a few months back.

I also recall when, as a budding young relationship manager at Saudi International Bank, I was sitting in front of the treasurer of the national airline in his Jeddah office telling him we will no longer offer encashment services in London for his staff and cabin crew. Though fluent in English he repeatedly used the word Ya’ni between sentences. I was unsure at first if it was an insult – I discovered it wasn’t.

And finally

Is the use of filler (meaningless) words) necessarily a bad thing? I’ve spoken to people who say they form an essential part of conversations giving people thinking time before responding. I am indebted to Portuguese with Eli for this explanation:

They don’t have a meaning in and of themselves. But they do perform an important role in the conversation.

Sometimes they help you include the listener in what you’re talking about.

Other times they help you introduce a new topic or take a new turn in the conversation.

But mostly, they help you make time to think — and that’s their most important role.

My conclusion: try to avoid filler words if presenting or responding to formal questions BUT if having an informal conversation, go with what feels right!

Today’s photo:a rooftop conversation in Lisboa around SocialNow that was devoid of auditory clutter between a Canadian, Dutchman, Englishman and a Portuguese.

Going back in time: the value of “Paying it Forward”

I was approached recently by a former client to see if I would be willing to update a piece of work I was involved with a decade ago.

I was initially reticent as much of my last 5 years has been occupied setting up and running a business (Bees Homes Property Limited), co-authoring a couple of books (“Navigating the Minefield” and “KM Cookbook“) conducting global masterclasses as well as undertaking pro bono work (President CILIP and a founding member of Eastbourne’s “Cobra” Committee and BSI’s KM Standards Committee). Frankly, as we were also dealing with a family bereavement, the last thing I was interested in was another assignment.

And it came concurrent with another request for assistance but I was attracted by the learning opportunity of revisiting previous recommendations.

I’ve always been a proponent of “Give / Get” or “Paying it forward”. That, if you put yourself out for others and give without expectation of reward, people will remember when you need to ask of them. And so it proved.

I sent a note (via LinkedIn) to some of my network. Here’s what I said:

I’ve been reflecting on 30 years of “KM” experience as a precursor for a new piece of work. I’m asking friends and close connections these questions.

…would you mind taking a stab at answering them. Obviously your response would be treated in confidence.

I was hugely appreciative of the many and varied responses and offers to chat about them. While preserving confidentiality I am sure the global contributors (drawn from industrial engineering, pharma, defence, law, consulting) will allow me a few observations. This was the first question:

What’s the #1 business issue you’ve been addressing?

Data Governance. All parts of the business are impacted by a lack of enterprise wide, fully integrated data governance strategy, tools and behaviours.
Timely provision of reference projects as well as exchange of lessons learned in the project business to avoid mistakes.
Embedding LfE (Learning from experience) in projects meant a long detour to first define a projects approach to embed into (!)
The amount of time it takes to approve consumer-facing knowledge has been my biggest challenge.
Ability to accurately map current capability and knowledge in digital and information professionals or subsequently plan for future needs.
Knowing what each other is doing and what each other knows.
Dealing with hybrid work model. From KM side it is document automation.

In 2017 in “Navigating the Minefield” I wrote as a summary observation on the programmes we’d looked at, Operational KM to the fore, Strategic KM to the rear.

Interestingly, 5 years on, the majority of the above are focussed on “burning platform” issues, hence tactically driven rather than strategic.

The exception is driven by the founder who insists senior managers take ownership of content placed on their practice management system. They recognise that their core product is knowledge and needs to be findable and reused where applicable.

It’s a theme I am finding time and again as organisations attempt to answer:

Where do I find?

What did we do?

Who knows?

What if they leave?

How do we create and share new knowledge?

And finally

Communication is at the heart of effective KM. Presenting findings or seeking input to an idea is often about putting yourself in the shoes of the recipient.

The simple act of putting a “Draft” watermark on a document when circulating it for comment among seniors and peers will send a powerful signal about ‘working out loud’ and challenge existing hierarchichal ways of working.

I’ve found a visualisation to be worth a thousand words. Here’s six drivers I believe underpin many KM programmes. I’d be interested in the thoughts of others.

In case you are wondering about the relevance of the picture (of a road in the medieval town of Warkwick) it’s where I got the idea of this article from!

Mind your language: when yes means no!

A few weeks back I was in Maastricht, a town synonymous with a 1991 EU treaty I’d point to as the beginning of the movement to take the UK out of the European Union by those on the right of the Conservative Party led by Prime Minister John Major. This observation, from Elisabeth Hill-Scott, a political commentator, struck home:

Major was also able to argue that the Maastricht principle of ‘subsidiarity’ meant that more decisions could be devolved to the national level

I vividly remember the fractuous nature of the ensuing debate resulting in the eventual resignation of Prime Minister Major. I mention that example to emphasise how words (and places) shape our perception and how ambiguity, while useful in getting political treaties over the line can be destructive in a business environment where a second language is the vehicle of communication.

Back to July 2022. We were in Maastricht for my birthday to attend a twice postponed (due to Covid-19) concert by local boy made good Andre Rieu. Each year Andre and his orchestra occupy the town square in July for a series of open air dinner concerts. The audience is diverse, smart and multicultural. The lingua franca is English!

That we chose to travel via Le Shuttle on the day schools broke up for the summer term was poor planning though in mitigation when we originally booked the dates did not coincide. The additional presence of my 94 year old mother added to the sense of anxiety when, arriving on time for check in, we were told departures were being delayed by 3 hours! Our sense of frustration was exacerbated by the blame game that ensued with the UK Home Office castigating the French for the lack of border officials to check passports and the French opining it wasn’t them that changed the European travel rules. The truth, revealed by a Eurotunnel official, they were surprised by the demand and unprepared for the rush.

A gulf in perception

Apart from my wife Ana (who is Portuguese) and mother (who isn’t) we were joined by a Dutch friend Annette who lives and works in Germany and her German friend Gaby. The event was to prove a great backdrop to a series of conversations about perceptions, cultural nuances and miscommunication.

I’ll begin on the evening of the concert. Since my mother is no longer fleet of foot we needed to park as close to the main square as possible. An early arrival ensured we found an off road parking space. With no barriers, cameras or ticket machines, I was intrigued as to how parking fees were collected and non payment avoided. I was told people just come in and pay out of a sense of obligation.

A day later and the five of us are exploring Maastricht and surrounds. We noticed how the people who served us were smart, engaging and seemingly proud of their roles; and how respectful the clients were of them. Throughout our time there, eating or drinking proved to be a collaborative experience where the ‘server’ took pleasure in your pleasure.

There are staff shortages mainly due to Covid not a lack of interest. Being in hospitality is viewed as a career and not looked down on and seen as a retrograde step for those unable to get a real job!

Linguistic & cultural nuances

This got us onto the use of language. Surrounded by 3 people whose linguistic capabilities put mine to shame we discussed how the English tend to thrive on ambiguity (see Treaty of Maastricht interpretation above).

I shared my experience of managing the intergration of Dutch, German, US and English companies; how the word interesting is interpreted as a positive word by non English when it is quite likely to be a way of saying “not on my watch”.

Another word often used by native English speakers that can cause offence is tolerant. When describing how accomodating ‘we’ can be, I said we are tolerant. “You tolerate me?” was the sharp response! As a result I no longer use that phrase.

I first came across the phrase “Goat mouth” while conducting an interview with a President while on a Knowledge Management assignment in the Caribbean.

Slang expression for someone that has the ability to predict future outcomes (particularly unfavorable future outcomes that causes misfortunes)

https://jamaicanpatwah.com/term/Goat-mouth/1574#.YvuQxPHMJeU

Had I understood it at the time it would have put much of the remaining conversation into context. NB it showed the value of capturing (with the interviewees consent) the conversation and having it transcribed!

Finally, going back a decade, I am working on a project to improve collaboration and team working across a global organisation. Having surfaced a number of stories of behaviours and cultural nuances that separate and unite we create a “What makes us tick?” booklet that serves as a critical friend aimed at getting the team to reflect first and speak / write second.

And finally

You might be aware one of my prime interests is Bees Homes who sells beautiful homes.

The process of selling and buying a property in the UK is convoluted and alien to the majority of the rest of the world. Solicitors / Conveyancers are at the centre of the English process and their interpretation can derail a transaction especially when each has a different take of property & boundary law. When structural surveyors are instructed as they tend to be on older property purchases there is a need for careful interpretation of what their words really mean.

Here’s a true story:

A couple of friends were buying a wonderful but run down property commanding a magnificent view over Friston Forest. When they received the surveyor’s report they questioned whether they should go ahead with the purchase as it contained many comments of concern. Our friends who are practical business people decide to cut throught the caveats and legalese and ask a straight question:

“Are you aware the property has been empty for 4 years? If so would you buy it?”

The response: “No we weren’t. In that case in a heartbeat, all it needs is a little TLC”

Imagine then, selling a historic property to an overseas buyer who works for a parastatal organisation and prone to forensic interpretation of words. The propensity for misunderstanding and mistrust is great and requires the patience of Job. Phrases and words of professionals can be confusing to overseas clients and result in intransigent positions being adopted.

I suggest the English speaking world is privileged but lazy. Few of us speak another language yet we get offended when non native English speakers don’t grasp what we say or mean.

Here’s a mantra I developed many years ago to mitigate this issue. Taken from a post I wrote while helping a new multicultural management team come together:

Perhaps the most revealing was that nobody had English as his or her first language. We adopted this mantra as a way of overcoming potential misunderstanding:

‘I heard you to say…. and I understood you to mean….’

Further we agreed that whenever anyone did not understand a phrase or word they would seek clarification and record it on a white board along with a glossary of terms.

Thanks for reading

Striving for Omotenashi excellence: the value of “Pause & Reflect” sessions

“As a child, I often would go back home to spend my summers in Tokyo with my grandparents. A memory that stays with me are the trips we would take to Kamakura and Hayama. Hotels and ryokans treated every guest like a VIP—no matter if this was the first stay or the 100th stay. The attentive staff was neither pushy nor clingy nor obtrusive. It was a perfect balance. Everything from the first warm greeting to the way meals were prepared and served was an experience, executed smoothly and with such precision it never felt forced or unnatural. Moreover, the hotels had this uncanny sense of knowing what the guests needed. Every time I left, I couldn’t wait to come back again.

The quote (bold emphasis is mine) is taken from a blog post by Mari Yamaguchi, who comes from a Customer Experience Design and Voice of the Customer background, and gives a good illustration of the five basic principles that underpin the Japanese custom of Omotensahi.

  • Greet the customers
  • Be friendly / smile
  • Use appropriate language
  • Be presentable
  • Act appropriately

As business managers / owners I wonder how many of your team aspire to provide that level of service? Is it part of your culture too? Do your clients say, “I couldn’t wait to come back again?”

Are you able to say we have “..an implicit understanding that there are no menial tasks if the result ensures a great experience…”

In search of excellence

It doesn’t matter the size of your business or industry, operational and decision making processes can always be improved. Taking time to reflect in a non judgemental way is an essential part of the technique Knowledge & Information Professionals call Learning Before, During & After.

As a relatively young business (5 years old this month) Bees Homes has set out to provide exceptional customer service and to use it as a market differentiator. A quick glimpse of its current portfolio amplifies the strapline “Selling Beautiful Properties from the Downs to The Weald”!

First impressions count. Since 90% of property sales originate from online searches it’s essential to stand out from the crowd. Great presentation is key to getting a listing noticed and potential buyers interested and willing to pay a premium.

Bees Homes ‘Tailored Marketing’ (part of a trademarked process – 5Hive) is subject to continual improvment and refinement. Core, is the art of presenting the client’s home to its maximum potential. And to achieve that, a wide range of experienced and talented professionals with complimentary skill sets are deployed at the photoshoot along with an array of accessories and artifacts for staging and styling.

Each event is planned with military precision with estimated timings for each phase, the order in which rooms are to be staged and the role to be played by each professional.

The lead agent needs to ‘see through the lens’ of the photographer and imagine how an image will look online and in the bespoke coffee table brochure that’s produced for each property.

She/he needs to capture enough of the DNA of the property that the Copywriter and Designer can incorporate it in the brochure. And she/he needs to ensure the client is delighted with both the event and the resulting marketing collateral.

Each of these events throw up learnings that are fed back into operational processes. Here’s how:

Learning after: “Pause & Reflect”

Each Pause & Reflect session is run no more than 2/3 weeks after the event and lasts for a maximum of two hours.

It is led by someone who was not at the event and features those who were.

So many organisations fail to engage with the people who work alongside them. In the above example James (our photographer) was able to input a number of valuable insights and suggestions that will improve the conduct future projects and the result for the client.

As an illustration, a list of 10 enhancements emerged from the latest session all of which have been fed back into Bees Homes Tailored Marketing process. The latest brochure of a very desirable property in Rye reflects a couple.

And finally

Bees Homes is fortunate to be led by Ana Aguilar-Corney who is a qualified Interior Designer and experienced design blogger. Ana is able to use her skills to help the team present a property in a compelling way so that prospective buyers can imagine themselves living there.

Successful businesses draw on a variety of skills and give voice to the people who work alongside them. They are willing to hold up their hands when things don’t work out the way they’d planned but (and this is a differentiator) they are constantly seeking a pathway to excellence through process improvement. Dare I say it, to a culture of Omotenashi?

Virtual Teams: simple steps to help with self isolation

What do you do when one of your team has to self isolate just before Christmas and is unable to join the pre Christmas celebration? Put the celebrations on hold, go on with the show without them, or make them centre stage of your event?

The team at Bees Homes chose the latter and having dusted down a few of my “Managing Virtual Teams” notes, we asked our Team Executive, Gemma who was self isolating, to come up with an online quiz to accompany our hastily (re) arranged pre Christmas gathering.

It proved to be a success with much laughter. Why?

  1. Snacks (and wine) were shared as we had passed by her home on the way to the office and left food – Gemma had what we had.
  2. Gemma was the host so drove the pace of the event which lasted a couple of hours.
  3. Drawing on some great ideas on this Team Building site, she came up with a “Spin the wheel” quiz and added questions such as “What is your favourite Christmas Song?”
  4. The whole team were visible throughout – see Gemma’s view from my laptop.
  5. We have spent time in f2f team meetings developing a collaborative and supportive culture.
  6. Gemma is someone who responds well to adversity and takes responsibility.

It reinforced many of the tips I’ve given clients over the last couple of decades about managing virtual teams.

Happy New Year!