The Communications Challenges of a Complex World

I have often thought that the most immovable circumstances, un-shiftable issues and even violent confrontations come down to our frequent inability to understand one another. Put another way — our inability to communicate exactly what it is we are thinking and feeling in a way which takes into account what the people we are communicating with might be also thinking or feeling, and understanding where both we, and they, are at.

We’ve recently seen a massive communications mis-fire from emotionally intelligent brand poster-child Dove. Any seasoned communicator will sit down and wonder how the sophisticated machine that is Unilever communications could possibly have missed the potential for misunderstanding and offence in a 3 second Facebook promotion that has since been excoriated by the public and media alike.

I like to think after 30+ years in brand communications that I am a reasonably skilful communicator. And yet I know that so many times when I find myself in a situation where something threatens my sense of security, my ability to communicate with emotional intelligence evades me because I have been speedily pulled into an operational mode of protection.

Why? What is happening that is making communications even more difficult — not just for global brands but for us all? How do we become better communicators in complex times?

How, for example, does someone who feels it is simply inhumane and abhorrent when asked for a second or third time to deliver a series of personnel redundancies to cut costs — knowing the personal hardships it will cause for both those lost and those who remain — respond to the leader who makes the demand without seeming to engage with the impact? How do teams negotiate a way forward when one side is clearly leaning towards command and control and the other towards collaborative egalitarianism? Is there anything we can we do to communicate with greater ease and grace?

I want to share some of the factors I think that we need to take into consideration and some pathways through complex communications that I use. No silver bullets but some things that are working for us in our service to organisations.

Colliding Factors That Are Colluding to Make Communications Challenging (love my C’s)

I think there are several factors that are conspiring to make communicating with accuracy much more complex. They are:-

CONSCIOUSNESS: Widely varying levels of consciousness in any single group. Or put another way — different ways of looking at the world as it is — worldviews. Developmental theory suggests that we are now seeing a much wider variety of levels of consciousness in the human population than at any other time in human history. Whether you subscribe to the spiral dynamics framework of psychologists Clare Graves, are a fan of Fred Laloux’s ‘teal’ framework which stems from the same work, or are interested in social, evolutionary or organisational psychology, it’s hard to miss the fact that there are many different world views currently at work in the world.

A rapid comparison of the attitudes of world ‘leaders’ past and present from Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama through to Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump to Kim Jong Un and Aung San Suu Kyi — the differences in approaches to communication cannot be explained by education and environmental culture alone.

Of course no-one operates from a single level of consciousness at any one time. Consciousness is not linear, in my experience it’s a lot more like a roller coaster ride being pulled between different states which is why the emergent, flowing nature of Clare Graves spiral dynamics framework appeals to me.

I find if I keep both Graves Spiral Dynamics model alongside Richard Barrett’s Levels of Consciousness models in my mind, I’m much more able to understand where I am at any moment in time, and that helps me understand others.

For example Richard’s model helped me to see and understand the very psychological impact of the 2008 financial crash on individuals who were probably self-individuating and focusing on purpose and legacy when suddenly their financial stability disappeared from underneath them. It is extraordinarily difficult to operate at a purpose-led level when you are suddenly pulled back into scarcity and needs mode and worried about your future financial security. I have encountered many middle-ages executives who are operating in this very confused set of tensions which has completely undermined their judgement and confidence to execute decisions.

What are the communications challenges between different levels?

My observations — not scientifically researched in any way — suggest that if there is more than one level of consciousness between two different people they will have great difficulty understanding one another. Even when one individual may be highly connected to purpose, service, have a strong set of positive values and a stable moral compass, that individual may struggle to enter into dialogue with someone still operating mainly from a command/control mindset. It is not that one cannot understand the other, they simple use a completely different language and values set to interpret what they see going on in the world.

Cultural Diversity: Around the boardroom table, in a social gathering, in any given city, there is now much more cultural diversity than we have previously seen. Globalisation has allowed us to travel freely, moving executives and managers around the world in pursuit of consolidation and growth. It has made our human experience so much richer and more exciting, but when it comes to operating an international business — harder. Why?

In her brilliant book The Culture Map, Erin Meyer highlighted the different ways we approach significant business behaviours, depending on our cultural heritage. They include Communications, Decision-Making, Disagreeing, Leadership, Trusting, and Scheduling. I’ve seen this in my own working life especially during mergers and acquisitions and international growth.

Put the egalitarian Israelis around a table with the respectful and hierarchical Japanese and you’ve got a recipe for mis-blinks. Ask a high-context communicator from Germany who is used to concluding a meeting with explicit minutes and notes for future action to understand the disarming assumption that everyone knows what to do without writing anything down that you might meet around the board room in Nairobi, and frustration looms.

Communication in Asia is very implicit. Consequently Chinese businessmen are often looking for ‘hidden’ meanings when listening to conversations — because that is what they would naturally do themselves. If they’re listening to an American who tends to ‘tell it like it is’ they will be listening in vain for those subtle clues designed to facilitate understanding — and much time can be lost.

And it goes on. I can’t recommend The Culture Map highly enough if you are involved in international business, and especially if communications is part of your job.

Gender Diversity: let’s not assume we’ve cracked this one! We’ve come a long way and yet there’s still a long road to travel until we have business cultures where a woman’s voice is paid equal attention to a man’s. In my research I looked hard for one single thing I could bring to my future workshops that would alleviate this particular challenge. It was a struggle but in the end a colleague from the advertising industry who has made a critical focus on this one issue was of great help.

I base a lot of interventions on the insight that men (and we are being very general here) tend to accelerate into communication, opinion, views, speaking in boardroom environments and women tend to put on the brakes. They will slow down and pause before offering the equally valid communication, opinion and views. Their language will often be different.

Much of the design that goes into our workshops is based on ensuring that there is equal opportunity for people to accelerate into communication and to put the brakes on — mapping their natural behaviours. But equally, ensuring the opposite happens too. There must be ‘forced’ braking for the accelerators and ‘forced’ acceleration for the brakers!

Character & Personality: this is probably where we are most advanced in our understanding and communication. The proliferation of diagnostic tools that help us to individually and as teams to understand who we are, what our personality means, what our strengths are and even what our natural and fragile talents are, has helped enormously in levelling the playing field for introverts vs extroverts and different character profiles of all kinds. It has been significant in aiding the design of high performance teams.

There’s one more and it’s the least researched and least understood of all.

Trauma in Organisational Culture: I’ve only started to scratch the surface here so here’s what I know. Culture is formed around a series of unconscious agreements. These agreements are so woven into the fabric of culture they become normal and there is little chance of change until these agreements are brought into awareness. So often when starting a programme of culture change, we need to ask what kinds of agreements we really want to have with each other. Until we bring awareness to what we do habitually nothing changes.

Culture sits on top of personal habits and collective habits which often sit on top of trauma. There’s a whole area of exploration of how we haven’t begun yet on how trauma operates in the corporate world but it is valid to try to understand as it has an enormous impact on culture and communications

So. We have at least four key factors to take into account when communicating effectively. What is needed is to move to a state where more intelligently informed empathetic communications takes place. Where we learn to cognitively understand the challenges but also sense into what the other is experiencing and feeling, activating something the Japanese describe as ‘feeling the air’.

How can we activate a state where more empathetic communication takes place?

I would love to be able to say there is a simple dot-to-dot process to follow and things will improve magically. Of course there are many technical courses you can take to improve in all four areas. Yet the over-riding themes that anchor these difficulties are somewhat different. So rather than look at specific tactical do’s and don’ts, let’s try to look at some bigger themes that work on all the areas we’ve highlighted.

  1. Activate Slow:Firstly the reality of corporate life is lived at a frantic pace. People in corporate life live in a very reduced version of reality because of the speed at which they are having to work and make decisions. If we take one of the ‘tensions’ under which we exist — Being vs Doing — where Being is operating from a reflective, intuitive mode and Doing is all about action, control, prediction, fixing things, certainty, making things happen — the corporate world is almost exclusively about Doing. Doing is reinforced through business education and structures. It’s reinforced even in our education system. We constantly ‘do’.

When we are in ‘doing’ mode there’s very little chance for awareness and observing to get a look in and that’s firstly what’s needed. We need to create a small opportunity — a window in time — to be aware of thinking and behaviour patterns so that we have a chance to reflect and review what we’re doing. One of the things we have to do is slow down; de-activate the nervous system to recalibrate and detox from the world of constant action and activate a part of our consciousness we rarely use.

2.Somatic or body work helps here. Sometimes just asking people in a group to lie on the floor is good. Working with conscious breathing techniques brings the attention to the body. Paying attention to how the body feels, what you hear, taste, sense and feel in a given moment. Mindfulness meditation is a key tool — beyond it’s well publicised ability to help with stress, the real give of mindfulness meditation is the activation of awareness.

3.Grounding yourself; in case that’s a term you aren’t familiar with, it simply means connecting yourself into Mother Earth via your own body or via something that is very well connected — like a tree. There is a reason tree-hugging is good for you! A very good coach or healer can transmit this state to people sometimes by their very presence and energy.

Even the simple act of not rushing to answer the phone or a challenging email but stopping to take 2–3 very deep breaths before you act, can give you a vital pause before you leap into doing.

4. Learning to Listen: Introducing deep listening skills at an early stage often opens a door to the subconscious to help us out. Most people think listening is just about hearing what the other person is going to say. Even that can be difficult when people are so itching to step in with their own view and opinion! Really deep and true listening comes from being able to move from a form of listening where we are paying attention to confirm only what we already know — which Otto Scharmer refers to as downloading — to listening with an Open Mind where we start to notice differences and are able to ‘disconfirm’ what we know, listening with an Open Heart where empathy and emotions are connected and we can walk in another’s shoes, and finally to generative listening where we are listening for the possibility of what the future wants to emerge.

How do we know when we are participating in these different levels of conversation?

When you come out of a conversation, and everything that you expected to hear actually did happen, that’s a good indicator that you have been downloading, that you have been part of a conversation where nothing new really happened.

When you come out of conversation where you feel that new aspects or new viewpoints that you weren’t previously aware of came into your vision that are challenging some of your own assumptions, that’s a good indicator you have been in a good conversation that exposed you to new realities; level two.

When you come out of a conversation that not only exposes you to new information that challenges your assumptions, but that also allows
you to see reality through another’s perspective and to begin to see yourself through the eyes of another stakeholder, that’s a good indicator for level three.

There are a couple of key indicators for a generative conversation. One is when your energy is activated, and your levels of inspiration are much higher. Another is the observation that something that wasn’t quite there yet before — a breakthrough idea or a profound innovation — is in the process of coming to life. Perhaps the main criteria is the sense that you have left the conversation as a someone different to the person that entered the conversation. You are more your real self. You’re more closely connected to who you really are, who you have the possibility to become tomorrow and in the further future.

5. Clean Language: incorporating clean language into workshops or training programmes can be a very helpful tool to improve clarity around many things, communications included. Originally developed by David Grove and used extensively in psychotherapy, Clean Language has recently become more popular in organisational change. It helps people to both understand the extensive use of symbolism and metaphor in others dialogue through a questioning method, but also with practice, avoid creating misunderstandings through their own use of metaphor.

6. Understanding Cognitive Bias: Implicit bias has been recognized as a major barrier to not only good communication but to activating diversity in organisations. Many communication and cultural issues stem from the power that implicit biases have over decision making and influence who we hire, how we communicate with and treat people.

7. Activating Emotions:More difficult is work in the emotional realm where the reality of what corporate culture allows us to feel and share is much reduced. Sadness and fear are still not often acceptable states that can be shown in corporate life (unless you work at enlightened organisations like Patagonia where it’s fine!). We have to find ways in which we can introduce emotional reflection into the working day. Sometimes asking people to write and share a poem can trigger a deeper response. Sometimes reflecting on needs articulated on simple cards is useful — Max StJohn has a great set of Needs Cards, I use them all the time.

8. Empathy Walks, a process developed by MIT Professor Ed Schein is another useful tool to activate deeper listening and carefully study what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. In fact The Empathy Museum in London is a project where you can do just that! Put on headphones and listen to someone else’s randomly selected story and wear their shoes while you are doing it. I love it when art and soul collide like this!

One of the most important emotions that stalks corporate life is fear. We’re conditioned to think of fear as a negative emotion, whereas if we can get individuals and teams to sit into fear and examine it, it can be a very powerful catalyst for change. Sometimes if I feel there is real fear in the room, I will suggest awareness work before doing anything else as you can’t work with fear until you are aware you are actually operating from that basis and start to understand its impact on your communications and behaviour.

9. Designing for Empathetic Communications: this is a very new science. Designing organisations which activate clarity, promote human understanding, can create safe spaces in which teams can share what they are thinking and feeling is not only down to leadership and culture, it can be enhanced with the design of practices inside organisations. Indigenous wisdom has long understood the power of circling, where hierarchy is booted out of the room and a physically equal shape ensures a level communication playing field.

Practices such as World Cafe, Open Space Technology, OPERA, Appreciative Enquiry are all helpful in the right context. Our own Creative Burst 90 is very specifically designed to help level the communications field between introvert and extrovert, gender and cultural differences when bringing a group together to rapidly re-imagine a single thorny challenge.

If I go on much longer, I will be publishing the entire content of my book Activation right here! As it is I’m wondering how many people will get this far! If that’s you, congratulations!! I will try to keep articles shorter in future!

If you are struggling with communications inside your organisation in any way and would like to have a chat about different approaches you can take, do connect with me. I’m here, on Twitter, on email (, on LI and FB.Te



By | 2017-10-20T00:20:14+00:00 October 19th, 2017|Empathetic Communications|0 Comments

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