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Aubrey Blanche
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Podcast Episode 105: the importance of noticing when to listen for difference, not for the familiar – Aubrey Blanche

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Good listeners focus on what’s said, and deep listeners notice what’s not said.

Each episode is designed to help you learn from hundreds of the world’s most diverse workplace listening professionals, including anthropologists, air traffic controllers, acoustic engineers, and actors.

Behavioral scientists and business executives, community organizers, conductors, deaf and blind leaders, foreign language interpreters, and body language experts. Judges, journalists, market researchers, medical professionals, memory champions, military leaders, movie makers, and musicians. You’ll learn from neurotypical and neurodiverse listeners, as well as neuroscientists and negotiators, palliative care nurses, and suicide counselors.

Whether you are in pairs, teams, groups, or listening across systems, whether you’re face-to-face, on the phone, or via video conference, you’ll learn the art and science of listening, and understand the importance of the neuroscience, and these three critical numbers:

125, 400, and 900.

You’ll also learn three is half of eight, zero is half of eight, and four is half of eight when you listen across the five levels of listening, conscious of the four most common barriers that get in your way.

Each episode will provide you with practical, pragmatic, and actionable techniques to reduce the number of meetings you attend, and shorten the meetings you participate in.

The Deep Listening podcast is the most comprehensive resource for workplace listeners.

Along with the Deep Listening Ambassadors, we’re on a quest to create 100 million deep listeners in the workplace, one conversation at a time.

Episode 104, seven years in the making, or a lifetime, depending on the backstory.

Today’s episode, it’s a little different. It’s a milestone for me and the Deep Listening Ambassador Community.

In this episode, I invite you to explore how to listen: discover the hidden key to better communication, the most comprehensive book about listening in the workplace.

It’s now available as an audiobook and eBook and paperback in partnership with Page Two, Macmillan Publishing, Twin Flames Studio, and Kelly Irving. How to Listen is now available in 23 countries for you to buy, and if you’ve already bought a copy, thank you.

www.oscartrimboli.com/howtolisten/?EP105

 

Transcript

Aubrey Blanche:
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 these beliefs 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.

Oscar Trimboli:
Deep listening, impact beyond words.

Good 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 or 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?

Aubrey Blanche:
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 heard. 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 other people, when you scale it out, really, it’s how we build a better world when we listen and we build a worse world when we don’t.

Oscar Trimboli:
Jennifer, a retired primary school teacher is a stay at home mom and her son, Christopher at the age of three, comes home from school. Jennifer says to Christopher, “What did you learn at school today, honey?” He said, “Mommy, mommy, I’m so excited. I learned the three is half of eight.” Now Jennifer’s a little confused. And as a former primary school teacher says, “Could you say that again, honey?” And he said, “Yeah, mommy, I learned that three is half of eight.”

Well, Jennifer puts her hands in her face and kind of shakes her head and she goes to the cupboard and she gets eight M&Ms out of the cupboard and lines them up on the kitchen table.

She puts four M&M soldiers in one line and four M&M soldiers in another.

She picks Christopher up and puts him on the kitchen table and says, “Honey, how many M&M soldiers in this row?”

And he goes, “One, two, three, four, Mommy.” And she goes, “How many on the other side?” He goes, “Mum, I don’t need to count, there’s four. They’re all facing each other.”

And she says, “You see, honey, three is not half of eight, four is half of eight.”

With that, Christopher jumped off the table, went and grabbed a piece of paper, drew the figure eight, altered it in half, tore it in half vertically and showed it to his mum and said, “Mommy, see three is half of eight.”

In that moment in time, Jennifer realized that her son was neuro-diverse, non-neuro-typical.

I’m curious, Aubrey, as you hear that story and you are in workplaces where people are obsessed with telling everybody else that four is half of eight and they’re wrong because of their culture, their background, their professional experience, what do you take from the story?

Aubrey Blanche:
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, right? And 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.

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 that in the situation is, “Oh three is half of eight. How amazing.”

And I think that’s true of neuro-diverse people in general, but maybe a spicy idea.

I’m starting to believe that there’s no such thing as neuro-diversity. 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 neuro-diverse to the point where I’m like, “I think we might all just be different, and we might have been living in this collected delusion that there was something called neuro-typically in the first place.”

Speaking as someone who is neuro-diverse 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 hear better, we listen better, but we also learn more and grow more as people.

Oscar Trimboli:
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, four is half of eight, but also to listen for difference where three is half of eight and zero is half of eight as well?

Aubrey Blanche:
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 middle, upper middle class household. And so for me, listening across that line of privilege, listening to someone who grew up poor or 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 a 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, but 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 putting on a program called Enhancing Diversity and 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 of people from that experience, but I actually more deeply understood my own life experience as well.

And it was through that I began to articulate the ways that I belonged in my community and the ways that I felt upon 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.”

Oscar Trimboli:
As the Mathpath, managers in workplaces can intersect with volumes of data around 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 the information and action?

How do they prioritize this tsumani 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?

Aubrey Blanche:
They call me the Mathpath, which is a bit of a Mathpath, which is a bit of a portmanteau 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 rigorous 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 is N=1 stories are just as important and powerful and someone’s like, “Oh, you’re a Mathpath.”

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, or 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 n-sized 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 this certainty that we crave out of data. What I always coach managers and my clients is that even if the data isn’t statistically significant, it’s directional and it tells you where to look deeper.

I always encourage managers to look at women of colors’ 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 coalmine.

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 and 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 CultureAmp, 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 CultureAmp is 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 women, including 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 for 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 for 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 spots if you are 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.

Oscar Trimboli:
We contrast the 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 it… some of the relativities that my clients aren’t conscious of, I’ll sit in meetings which are, I’ll use their language, I 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?

Aubrey Blanche:
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 looked at dozens of organizations, is 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 greatest predictor of future performance.

But one thing, the data often hides, 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 with CultureAmp is that in the of 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 “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 of COVID-19, our “performance standards” were about articulating your needs to your manager, setting appropriate boundaries, seeking support to deal with that, including and 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 was performance in those moments, but we also were able to use previous performance reviews as a way to inform what’s the average performance of this person, 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 he asked a great question about what the data hides, and the thing 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 abuse 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 random luck of… basically the randomized controlled experiment of getting with family

And so that’s distance traveled. 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 have 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 were 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.

Oscar Trimboli:
CultureAmp’s 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?

Aubrey Blanche:
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, 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.

I get a lot of requests for career coaching conversations with people junior in 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 in 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 will 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 have found the number of people who have written back to me in 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 and a little more help than they wouldn’t have 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 titch more fair than it was before, I think that this community with the reach that they have would change the entire world.

Oscar Trimboli:
What’s the question I should have asked?

Aubrey Blanche:
What’s the worst thing that you’ve done when you didn’t listen properly?

Oscar Trimboli:
And?

Aubrey Blanche:
Mm-hmm. 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 feeling. 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 hear her 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.

Oscar Trimboli:
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 Mathpath 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 www.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.

Aubrey Blanche:
I appreciate it, 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.

 

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