Apple Award Winning Podcast
In this episode, MathPath Aubrey Blanche helps people, teams, and organizations notice the edge of their mental, and systems models.
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G’day, it’s Oscar. This is an update to episode 105 on the importance of noticing, when to listen for difference, not the familiar and the difference between hearing and listening is action. During this episode, I retold a story Jennifer Grau shared in episode 87, about three being half of eight, which contains inaccuracies. After speaking with Jennifer, I’ve updated this episode with the original story, and for the record, Jennifer Grau is a listening trainer, a coach with Grau Interpersonal Communications. I apologize for the errors. Jennifer Grau and Christopher Ruge are grateful for the changes. This is the update for episode 105.
Always ask how it could be more equitable. This is really core to the practice in what I teach. My theory of change is called equitable design, and it’s really based in this belief that every decision, every action, or for every event, experience, program, system, product can either create greater or less equity. And I believe that the most powerful thing each of us can do is do the next slightly more right thing.
Deep Listening, impact beyond words. G’day, I’m Oscar Trimboli and this is the Apple Award-winning podcast, Deep Listening, designed to move you from a distracted listener to a deep and impactful leader. Did you know you spend 55% of your day listening, yet only 2% of people have ever been taught how? In each episode we explore the five levels of listening. Communication is 50% speaking and 50% listening. Yet, as a leader, you are taught only the importance of communication from the perspective of how to speak. It’s critical you start to build some muscles for the next phase in how to listen. The cost of not listening, it’s confusion, it’s conflict, it’s projects running over schedule. It’s lost customers, it’s great employees that leave before they want to. When you implement the strategies, the tips and tactics that you’ll hear, you’ll get four hours a week back in your schedule. I wonder what you could do with an extra four hours a week.
Aubrey Blanche is a math nerd and an empath who helps organizations build equitable processes, products and experiences. Her work combines an empathetic and intersectional approach with social scientific methods to create meaningful and sustainable change from fair talent processes and bias resistant product design to equitable algorithmic design and communication strategy. She helps organizations to think holistically about evolving to meet the needs of a rapidly diversifying and globalizing world. Aubrey and I explore listening for differences, practical steps you can implement in your organization to listen for the data of performance and equity while being conscious of change over time. That’s the performance implication of listening for velocity. Aubrey changed my mind about my choice of where to spend my time in our Deep Listening quest and the consequences of choosing who and where I place my attention. Let’s listen to Aubrey. What’s the cost of not listening?
In the worst case scenarios, it’s that you do actual harm to another person. In the work that I do, I’m so often talking to people, working with people, trying to support people who are very different from me. If I’m not able to listen deeply, there is a big chance that I contribute to them still not feeling hurt. I work with marginalized people who are often unheard in the world, and so I can do harm by exacerbating that. Or if I’m not listening deeply, I can develop a solution that doesn’t actually meet the need that’s being articulated and could actually be harmful in some way.
Listening is the first thing that we do when we want to support others scale it out really is how we build a better world when we listen and we build a worst world when we don’t.
Aubrey, I’d love to invite you to listen to a story from episode 87, told by Jennifer about her son Christopher when he comes home from school, I’ll be curious to see how you respond.
Chris has taught me a million things about becoming a better listener. When he was three, he came home from school all excited about something and he sat down and he told me, “Mommy three is half of eight.” And I was so distressed, but I put on my mother hat and I said, let’s explore that. And I took out the M&Ms and I put them on the table and I put eight M&Ms on the table and I said, “Chris, show me how three is half of eight.” And he looked up at me with the most loving eyes and he said, “Oh mommy, you will never see it that way.”
And he proceeded to go grab a sheet of paper and a pen, and he created an eight and he did a vertical bisection of the number eight. And he showed me the right hand half and he said, “You see mommy three is half of eight,” with this giant grin on his face. And I realized that the whole world was about to change for me because this kid was going to open my eyes to all kinds of things that I had not seen, had not noticed, and were going to become important.
I love that story, I think in math a lot of times, and I was like, oh, she’s thinking in arithmetic and he’s thinking in geometry almost, in shapes. In so many organizations, there’s this homogenization that happens and I come from the tech industry where innovation is the thing, and often when you start from the premise that you don’t know anything, you’re actually able to better see that. There’s an assumption that like, oh, you’re speaking in arithmetics that four is half of eight, but Christopher didn’t say that. He didn’t say how. And so I see it as there was an assumption that led to a misunderstanding or I guess to put it in your language, an assumption that led to an inability to hear, an inability to listen. And so for me, when I approach something like that, because I try and I say try because I am certainly imperfect and fail at this at times, but if I hear something that’s surprising or that doesn’t align with my experience or what I know, the first thing I try to say is, can you tell me more about that?
Because what I’ve found is when I just ask someone for more but don’t put constraints on what more means, they will take me down the path that they came from and it’s usually not one I would’ve found or walked on my own. And often, when you open it up for someone to continue sharing with you, you get that context. And so you have that realization, in this situation, is oh three is half of eight, how amazing. And I think that’s true of neurodiverse people in general, but maybe a spicy idea. I’m starting to believe that there’s no such thing as neurodiversity. Not that there aren’t people with different ways of thinking, but it seems like every day there’s someone new that I meet that identifies as neurodiverse to the point where I’m like, I think we might all just be different, and we might have been living in this collective delusion that there was something called neurotypicality in the first place.
Speaking as someone who is “neurodiverse” herself, I’m bipolar type one. Yeah, I really believe that we should start with the assumption that other people have lived and walked different paths and have entirely different ways of thinking and perceiving than we do. And if that is the first and only assumption that we make, I think we share better, we listen better, but we also learn more and grow more as people.
One of the phrases I loved hearing from another conversation you had is diversify your inputs. For me, the way I make that practical is on the weekend when I’m gardening and mowing the lawn, I am listening to podcasts from presenters that I absolutely fiercely disagree with. And for me it’s a really humbling process that I’ve been doing for seven years now to make sure that I’m diversifying my inputs. What advice would you give for leaders out there to diversify their inputs in the workplace and outside so they can start to build muscles where they’re listening not just for similarities or is half of eight, but also to listen for difference where three is half of eight and zero is half of eight as well?
Oh, I think for me, in my line of work, this might not be surprising, but I would start because difference can mean a lot of things. Some of the most impactful and important listening that we do is across lines of difference that have to do with privilege. When I think about I’m someone who has a big combination of privileged and marginalized identities, and I have absolutely learned the most when I have thought… as an example, I grew up in a upper middle class household, and so for me, listening across that line of privilege, listening to someone who grew up poorer working class, I have learned more about the world and about humanity from thoughtfully and intentionally creating space in my listening diet for those types of perspectives, the advice that I would give to folks if you’re non-disabled, listen to disabled experiences. If you’re a man, listen to the experiences of people from marginalized genders. If you’re white, listen to people of color.
I am a very funny mix of identities. I’m white assumed but I’m Latina and mixed race, so I have this weird experience of both being a white person and being a non-white person in the American context. I was in a program in graduate school, so I pursued a PhD that I didn’t finish, and I was put in on a program called Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education, and it was for Black and Latinx students in the social sciences, and I was very intimidated to be in this room. You have to understand the people I was with were just so intellectually impressive. I did not feel like I had much to say in that room, but it was in that room listening to the experiences of the Black students in particular who experience a level of racism that I will never personally understand, that I began to actually understand racism as a system and as a social concept rather than as an individual problem because so growing up for me, I had been teased by kids at school who would slam my locker and tell me, oh, you’re the Mexican and that’s why we do this.
But I always thought that was an Aubrey problem. And listening to these incredibly brilliant students talk about the racism that they were facing on a daily basis, who I knew didn’t deserve it because no one would deserve to be treated the way that they were describing, I not only learned to have more empathy and understanding for the ways that I could show up as an ally to people from that experience, but I actually more deeply understood my own life experience as well. And it was through that, that I began to articulate the ways that I belonged in my community and the ways that I felt apart in my community.
If I had been talking in that whole meeting, I never would’ve heard those things that are now in the work I do. Probably some of the most fundamental things I’ve ever learned in terms of how they animate my work and my theory of change. I was a little late to my racial consciousness, but it came from listening to people who are more marginalized than me and it opened up my eyes to the way the world truly is, which personally inspired me to say, well, if it is this way, they built it this way, we can build it different if we make different choices.
As the maths path, managers in workplaces can intersect with volumes of data around the performance of their organization, of their people, the intersection of those two, how does a manager listen to the data and turn it into insights and information and action?
How do they prioritize this tsunami of information that they have at their fingertips today so that they can make progress on listening to difference in a way that’s actionable?
They call me the math path, which is a bit of math nerd and empath, and it was something that someone actually coined for me after listening to me for quite a while and specifically listening to me articulate this challenge I was having where I didn’t know how to sum up my approach to doing my work. So it’s very much based in academic science and mathematics and it’s very analytical and vigorous in that way, but also very much grounded in this belief, in the dignity and the value of individual people’s stories. I want to use quantitative information but not get lost in it because I am a big believer that those unequal stories are just as important and powerful and someone’s like, oh, you’re a maths path. My brain exploded because I said, oh, that’s what I’ve been trying to say. When I think about, or the managers that I’m coaching is like, how do managers take a little bit of that energy and build it into what their version of that looks like?
I always say, look at quantitative data as suggestions that show you where to look, for you might say, show you where to listen. One of the challenges that pops up in equity work all the time is you’re dealing with what we call small end size data. So the fact is we’re dealing with marginalized people who are often underrepresented, and so we don’t always get the statistical power that we want to get, the certainty that we crave out of data. What I always coach managers and like clients on is that even if the data isn’t statistic and significant, it’s directional and it tells you where to look deeper. I always encourage managers to look at women of color’s experience first because if there’s some kind of dysfunction happening in your organization, it’s going to impact them first. They’re the canaries in the coal mine. If something isn’t working for Black women in your organization, it’s objectively a problem, that it’s impacting them the worst.
And so prioritize their experiences and their quality of experience in creating space for their stories. And that’s a way that you can solve these broader problems by prioritizing that experience. And it’s a little bit backwards from the order of operations that people usually do, but I can tell you that it works. 2020, when I started at Culture Amp, I came in and I said, we’re going to focus on Black women. And the response was, well, why don’t we focus on women? It’s a much bigger category. And I said, I hear you and no. And the reason we’re going to focus on Black women is because their experiences will tell us the actual quality of experience at the organization, and if we improve their experiences, everyone else’s experience will improve as well. But if we don’t focus on them, they will be left behind and we won’t be keeping the commitments that we’re making to equity.
And what we’ve seen, it’s been, at Culture Amp, over the last two and a half years, we’ve seen an increase in overall gender representation at the company to the point where the majority of our VPs and executives are now womenincluding some women of color and the other side of the coin, it shows you where to listen, how do you listen? And I think there’s a couple of skills that create the space that allow people to feel safe enough to give stories for you to listen to because especially if you’re in a position of power or you’re coming from an identity that’s majoritarian, there’s not a lot of reason that someone might trust you or feel safe enough with you to tell you their story. The first thing that you do is you state your intention.
So when I’m in a one-on-one conversation with someone and I perceive where I know that they’re across that line of marginalization from me, I say, “Hey, I want you to know it’s really important to me that I create a safe environment for you to be open and honest with me, but I don’t expect you to trust me.I expect that I have to earn that trust, but I want you to know that that’s my goal.” The second piece is articulate your ignorance. So I always say, I don’t know your experience and I don’t want to presume to, but I’m grateful to you for sharing it with me so that you could help me with some of my blind thoughts if you’re willing. And I think that those two things build a lot of safety that may have really brought me a level of storytelling and authentic experience that I just never would’ve been blessed to be able to hear otherwise.
We contrast that absolute values in these reports, these data sets that values are displayed at a point in time, and one of the things that you’ve pointed out is the value of relativity and some of the relativities that my clients aren’t conscious of, I’ll sit in meetings which are… I’ll use their language, they call them the pre calibration meetings. These are meetings designed to allocate a fixed pool of compensation in a defined way to a group of people, and they have a group of heuristics to allocate bonuses, and often I’ll ask them a series of questions about the pace of change over time rather than the point in time in which they’re making a decision. Some people refer to this as the velocity of progress of an individual. Aubrey, what I’m curious about is what advice do you give leaders when they look at the data over time rather than just at a point in time?
Oh, so good. And you said one of my favorite words, which is velocity gets me thinking in physics and the dynamism of the systems. I agree with you that having that longitudinal data or that data over time is just more valuable. I hear in those pre calibration meetings, having been… worked with or worked at dozens of organizations, it’s always like, what’s the potential of this person? So that’s kind of the natural question and that’s really what you’re rewarding, it’s this future belief. And what the data would tell us is that past performance is the single furthest predictor of future performance. But one thing, the data often finds, longitudinal data gives you a clearer picture of past performance because one data point doesn’t tell you a lot. A very specific example of this from Culture Amp is that in summer 2020, a lot of our Black employees were genuinely struggling, as you can imagine, just a horrific time.
Asking them to get on a call and sell software or process expense reports was probably not their highest priority. And if we had taken a snapshot of many of their quote-unquote, “performance” at that time, it would not have reflected their full body of work. It would’ve reflected the severe community trauma that they were being impacted by. And so for us, our way of, we think of it as like correcting the data was that we actually released updated performance standards so that employees that were impacted by significant community trauma, certainly meaning protests and movement for racial justice, also COVID-19, our “performance standards,” put those in quotes, were about articulating your needs to your manager, setting up appropriate boundaries, seeking support to deal with that, including an up to taking additional time off.
We changed the way the data was measured and collected to make sure that it reflected what we believed this performance in those moments, but we also were able to use previous performance reviews as way to inform what’s the average performance of this posting, knowing that there’s some contextual things happening in this point in time that might not be representative of their long-term trajectory. The other thing, I think you asked a great question about what the data hides, and I think that data often doesn’t tell us is the distance traveled? I’m adopted. I was born into a family that had many challenges, so low income, substance use disorder, mental health challenges, a lack of money. And I was adopted by a family that didn’t have those challenges, but I have dear people in my life who were born into similar situations and didn’t have the random luck of basically the randomized control experiment of getting in the family.
And so that’s distance traveled, so the person I’m thinking of is probably equally as successful as I am in terms of career on paper. The data wouldn’t show you that they has probably worked significantly harder than I have to get there because I got a bunch of help that I’m grateful for, but I didn’t necessarily earn. And so I think that’s one thing that we always need to be considering when they’re reading this data is do we know this person well enough to add our context of their distance traveled to achieve what they’re achieving?
And we can know sociology, we can know history to make some educated guesses. Nothing is a substitute for knowing a person and being able to get to know their distance traveled. That to me speaks to the velocity piece, which is someone who was born in the same circumstance as me and we’re standing at the same point now, the fact is they have greater velocity than I do and nothing against me, but I would bet on them over me if I were a betting lady.
Culture Amps on a massive quest to change workplaces for the better. What advice would you provide to us in the Deep Listening community in our quest to impact a hundred million Deep Listeners in the workplace?
Always ask how it could be more equitable. This is really core to the practice in what I teach, my theory of change is called Equitable design, and it’s really based in this belief that every decision, every action, therefore every event, experience, program, systems, product can either create greater or less equity. And I believe that the most powerful thing each of us can do is do the next slightly more right thing.
I get a lot of requests for career coaching conversations with people in junior their career, and a lot of these requests come from people in my network whose kids are interested in HR or tech, and I like to say yes to them because I love the opportunity to mentor and support the next generation and how they’re coming up, it’s so important.
But I have a rule, I always ask for the email intro and then I will write back and I’ll say, “I am so excited to get to meet you and support you on your career journey. I will be happy to schedule once you identify a classmate or colleague of yours who doesn’t have the privilege of having a connected parent who I can also provide career mentorship to.” And so I’m not saying no to that person, but I’m modeling to them and I’m pointing out that the reason they have access to me is because of privilege and I’m asking them to share that privilege. And selfishly, it means that I get to meet more incredibly interesting, brilliant, talented people who maybe I can offer a bit of advice to. I had found the number of people who have written back to me and even the parents who have said, oh my gosh, “This is so interesting. I’m going to do this now.”
And you think of how many people get a little more advice, a little more help than they wouldn’t otherwise. It doesn’t always have to be this enormous thing, but if each of us could do something that’s just a titch more equitable or a titch more fair than it was before, I think that this community with the reach that they have would change the entire world.
What’s the question I should have asked?
What’s the worst thing that you’ve done when you didn’t listen properly?
I created a workplace in which someone felt there was no one to advocate for them, and it was a situation in which I had a new coworker and they told me about an experience. They had been traveling to visit other team members, and the team member had said something super derogatory to them, and it was one of those things where the team member was not being intentionally malicious, but it was absolutely not okay what they had said. And the first thing out of my mouth was, “I’m sure they didn’t mean it that way,” and I’m horrified.
I’m so embarrassed by the way that I behaved because what I did was I minimized her feelings. I didn’t create space for the harm and the sadness and the pain that she experienced in that moment, and she ended up leaving the team less than a year later. I look back and I think if I had actually heard, if I had taken the time to really [inaudible 00:28:52] experience, I would’ve responded differently. I probably would’ve acted differently. And I don’t know if that would’ve been a different outcome for her. I can’t guarantee that, but I think I can guarantee that her experience would’ve been better than the one that I created in that moment.
Aubrey changed my mind about how to listen to and for difference whilst reinforcing the importance of listening for the unsaid. When I said, what’s the question I should have asked? I noticed a substantial change in Aubrey’s tone and her pacing while explaining how the math path learned so much from saying, I’m sure they didn’t mean it that way. Aubrey had the courage to tell this story, and it got me thinking, how many times have I thought it without saying it? I’m sure they didn’t mean it. It’s made me more conscious in conversations now, it’s one of the elements of the dramatic listening villain. You can take the quiz at listeningquiz.com to discover which one is your primary listening barrier.
When you move your listening orientation exclusively from attempting to make sense of what they say and adjusting it slightly to an orientation where, as a listener, you have the curiosity to explore how can I, as the listener, help the speaker make sense of what they think, mean, and ultimately where they want to explore. When you become conscious that the listener helps the speaker change the way they express their thoughts, you’ll start to have an impact beyond words. Aubrey was generous enough to share a reflection about what changed during our conversation, and Aubrey will take to her next conversation. She’ll explain this at the very end of the episode. I’m Oscar Trimboli, and along with the Deep Listening Ambassadors, we’re on a quest to create a hundred million deep listeners in the workplace, and you have given us the greatest gift of all. You’ve listened to us. Thanks for listening.
I’m curious what you’ve noticed about my listening.
I appreciate, and I want to take this with me, the beautiful pauses that you put in the conversation, to me it looked like digestion of thoughts and ideas, and so I want to take that with me. It feels like a gift.