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Hi everyone! Thanks for joining us on a brand new episode of the NEGOTIATEx episode. We are joined by Don Rossmoore, author of “The Art Of Team Communication: Why Team Communication Breaks Down And What To Do About It.”
Despite being a high school dropout, Don eventually found himself at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, where Professor Chris Ardris invited him to pursue his Master’s degree.
After Harvard, Don relocated to Los Angeles to pursue a PhD at what is now the Anderson School of Management. During his tenure at UCLA, he was commissioned to design a seminar for budding engineering managers at Hughes Aircraft Company.
Transforming a two-day seminar into a comprehensive year-long program, Don’s initiative became an integral part of Hughes’ development program. Over the next decade, he spearheaded organizational development projects throughout Hughes, delving deep into various product groups.
An interesting aspect of Don’s personal life is his commitment to yoga; he has maintained a two-hour daily practice for 58 years and integrated its principles into his consulting, often recommending practices to his clients.
With that brief introduction sorted, let’s delve into the insights Don shares in this episode.
Firstly, Aram asks Don about his unexpected journey from being a high school dropout to studying at Harvard and then earning a PhD in management.
Don responds by explaining that despite not completing high school, he was an avid reader. With his grandmother’s support, he dedicated his twenties to self-growth, practicing yoga and reading history for four hours each day.
This intense routine led him to Boston, where he initially taught yoga to drug addicts at Fort Devens. Realizing that yoga alone wasn’t providing the desired therapeutic outcomes, Don adapted his approach to include encounter groups, a form of group therapy.
His work drew him to Boston State Hospital, where, due to a vacancy in a master’s program, he received training despite lacking formal qualifications. Following this training, Don was involved in numerous encounter groups weekly. His unconventional methods caught the attention of St. Mark’s school, the oldest boys’ boarding school in the U.S., where he introduced his encounter group program.
A chance meeting at Harvard Square with an old elementary school friend, who was then pursuing advanced degrees at Harvard, became pivotal in Don’s life. Discussing his current readings and group work with his friend, Don was introduced to an academic paper on organizational defensiveness by Dr. Chris Ardris, initially believed to be at Yale.
Upon discovering that Dr. Ardris had moved to Harvard, Don reached out, leading to a transformative meeting. In their discussion, Dr. Ardris highlighted a paradox in Don’s approach: while proposing a new behavioral model, Don used traditional methods to secure his role at St. Mark’s school.
Recognizing this inconsistency, Don sought guidance on how to bridge the gap. Dr. Ardris connected Don with two of his former doctoral students, who allowed Don to attend their seminars. Within a few months, Dr. Ardris formally offered Don the chance to pursue his master’s degree at Harvard.
Aram follows up by delving into the profound impacts of two key figures in Don’s life – his grandmother and Dr. Chris Ardris.
Don expresses deep gratitude towards his grandmother, who loved him unconditionally, a feeling he hadn’t experienced before. She played a pivotal role in his life during his late teens, providing a solid foundation and support when he felt lost and aimless.
Discussing Dr. Chris Ardris, Don highlights the transformative influence Ardris had on his perspective of organizations. During his late teens and early twenties, Don recognized a disconcerting truth about himself: his behavior was off-putting to many. This realization came when even his closest friend, pursuing a medical degree at NYU, candidly remarked on Don’s odd behavior, albeit with compassion.
This same friend introduced Don to yoga through a book. Eventually, yoga became a tool for self-awareness and change for Don, allowing him to introspect and identify the aspects of his behavior that were not well-received by others. Despite the self-awareness yoga provided, it did not offer a concrete set of “right actions” to remedy his behavior.
This gap was filled by Dr. Ardris. Ardris introduced Don to a structured set of normative behaviors and an effective learning process. This involved seminars with real-time feedback on recorded sessions, a method that Don found deeply enlightening.
Despite his growth and accomplishments, Don faced challenges in academia. Given his unique educational background, he faced rejection from Harvard’s doctoral program, which he had singularly applied to with high hopes. Chris Ardris, recognizing Don’s potential, connected him to both Case Western and UCLA.
Moving on, Aram inquires about Don’s extensive experience as a consultant across diverse industries. He seeks valuable insights on communication barriers that organizations commonly face.
Don pinpoints defensiveness as a pervasive trait within organizations, which becomes a communication challenge since many are unaware of their defensiveness. This lack of awareness causes teams to sidestep certain issues that need attention, creating a disparity between intentions and actions. Another significant challenge is the exclusion of crucial team members during planning, leading to resistance during implementation. Unaddressed misunderstandings and conflicts further exacerbate communication barriers.
To illustrate, Don recounts an enlightening experience with a multinational company. The company, spanning three business units, aimed to integrate its electronic systems into one. While it appeared straightforward, the challenge lay in merging three distinct operating systems into a single system. A seeming disagreement over fundamental technology threatened progress.
However, after extensive discussion and deep-diving into the core of the issue, it was revealed that the disagreement was merely a linguistic misunderstanding. The different units used varied terminologies for the same concept.
Aram underscores the repercussions of defensiveness in organizational communication, hinting at the many issues arising from this common barrier. In response, Don elucidates on the ripple effect of poor organizational communication.
For starters, individual stress levels rise, resulting in deteriorated morale, trust, and collaboration. One notable case study Don shares is of a major credit card company. The company was struggling with communication lapses, leading to widespread despondency among its employees.
While Don’s intervention brought hope, he uncovered a root issue: a significant disagreement at the executive level regarding the company’s IT direction. This conflict stemmed from the evolving banking practices, requiring different IT infrastructures based on differing perspectives from the engineering and marketing heads.
Don advised halting all work until a meeting could address this contention. The subsequent discussion, organized with meticulous preparation, led to an astonishing revelation by a McKinsey representative praising Don’s preparatory work over the phone.
This scenario encapsulates the overarching lesson: if not addressed, communication barriers result in operational challenges and emotional and psychological costs. Effective facilitation and preparation, as demonstrated by Don’s telephonic training, can effectively steer difficult conversations toward resolution.
Next, the speakers discuss the essence of deep and meaningful listening in communication. Alan points out the inherent difficulties in phone conversations, suggesting they often miss the subtleties compared to face-to-face interactions.
Don counters this perspective, highlighting that his yogic practices allow him to maintain an enhanced level of awareness during phone calls. Through meditation, he keeps his body completely still, letting sounds resonate throughout, much like wind through chimes. This heightened awareness offers him a unique ability to discern even the unspoken thoughts and emotions of the speaker.
Don further elaborates on the natural barriers to effective listening. He observes that humans are hardwired to engage with their internal dialogues. This internal chatter, persistent and compelling, often overshadows the external conversations, leading to a lack of genuine engagement and understanding.
To counter this inherent predisposition, Don underscores the pivotal role of meditation. He outlines a meditation technique: one begins by recalling a recent conversation where active listening was absent. This reflection is followed by a keen observation of bodily tension, which helps differentiate a ‘listening’ body from a ‘non-listening’ one.
The next step involves a meditative exercise, where the individual envisions the conversation again, focusing on active listening. The aim is to recognize and relax tension points in the body.
When asked about the duration of practice required to master this art, Don clarifies that it varies among individuals. The ultimate objective, however, remains consistent: listening should become an unconscious act, requiring no deliberate effort. Throughout their conversation, light-hearted banter between Alan and another host adds a touch of warmth and camaraderie.
Nolan acknowledges the challenges and importance of listening and asking quality questions. He desires to improve his inquiry skills, both for his relationships and in a professional context.
Don responds with a personal anecdote, highlighting how he used to find social mixers tedious. To navigate these events, Don devised a game for himself, aiming to go through the evening without talking about himself. He’d ask question after question, letting others share their stories. Over time, this became a habit for Don, turning interactions into deeper and more engaging conversations without speaking about his own experiences.
As an example, Don recalls an interaction with a senior sales executive he worked with. Despite the executive’s natural inclination to talk at length, he was always open to interruptions. Don shared his social mixer game strategy with him. The executive decided to apply it at a birthday party, where he engaged in a long conversation with a friend’s wife.
He only asked questions and refrained from talking about himself. At the end of their chat, the woman approached him to express how much she enjoyed their conversation, saying she felt like she knew him better, even though he hadn’t shared personal details about himself.
The underlying message of Don’s story is the power of genuine curiosity. It suggests that one can establish deeper connections and understanding with others by asking questions and actively listening.
Thank you for your time!
Nolan Martin : Hello and welcome to the NEGOTIATEx podcast. I'm your co-host and co-founder Nolan Martin. With me as always, co-host, co-founder, Aram Donigian. Aram, you want to get this one started?
Aram Donigian : Yeah. Hey, you got that done on the first take, Nolan? Well done. Our listeners don't know how many takes we have to do sometimes just to get the intro, but I'm not judging because I never have to do it, so I'm happy to let you take that.
NM : Well, I appreciate it.
AD : Hey folks. Today's guest is Don Rossmoore, author of ‘The Art Of Team Communication: Why Team Communication Breaks Down And What To Do About It’. Don is a high school dropout who did not go to college. At the age of 30, he was invited by Professor Chris Ardris to take his Master's degree at Harvard's Graduate School of Education.
Upon graduation, he moved to Los Angeles to take his PhD at what is now known as the Anderson School of Management. During his second year at UCLA, Don was hired to design and lead a two-day seminar for new first line engineering managers at Hughes Aircraft Company. He turned the two-day seminar into a year-long seminar, which meant weekly for two hours and did a two and a half day offsite every quarter.
For the next 11 years, Don did organizational development projects all around Hughes, including the following product groups, electro optical data systems, radar systems, satellite navigation systems, and surface shift systems. By the time Silicon Valley was born, he was an expert on the management of engineers, R&D, complex product development, product development teams, product management and leadership teams. At the beginning, there were very few consultants or managers with his knowledge or skillset.
Don has consulted almost everywhere in the world except China. He had been consulting in India for seven years when he was asked to work in China, but wanting to avoid long travel, he declined. Don is a yogi having practiced a minimum of two hours a day for 58 years and prescribes practices to help his clients. Don, thank you so much for joining us today.
Don Rossmoore : Thank you. It's wonderful to be here.
AD : Don, you have an incredible background. How does a high school dropout without a college degree get invited to study at Harvard and then go on to earn a PhD in management?
DR : So even though I didn't graduate high school, I was always a reader. I was reading history from the second grade, and in my twenties my grandmother supported me. I didn't work. So for seven years I did four hours of yoga a day, and I read history four hours a day. And then I went to Boston. I ended up teaching yoga to drug addicts at Fort Devens in Air Massachusetts. I then turned that into an encounter group because yoga wasn't helping.
And then I went to Boston State Hospital. I got trained in a master's level program. I got it because they had nine slots and they only had eight qualified candidates. And so they asked me to join. I did nine encounter groups a week for two years, and then I sold myself to a St. Mark's school, the oldest boys boarding school of the United States to do an encounter group. And then I'm at Harvard Square on a Friday night and a friend from elementary school who's getting his LLB and MBA simultaneously at Harvard. I run into him. I tell him I'm reading Klaus Fritz and Machiavelli.
I tell him about my group work, and two weeks later he sends me an academic paper about organizational defensiveness, and it's by a guy named Chris Ardris. And it said he's at Yale. And I was so turned on. I called up Yale and they said, no, Dr. Ardris is now at Harvard. I called him up at Harvard. He saw me in August. Nobody else was in the building. I sat down, I told him what I was reading. I told him what I was doing. I told him about my job at St. Mark's School, and he said, “why don't you role play with me how you talk to the headmaster at St. Mark's School to get this job?” So I did. I role-played with him.
And then he said, let me see if I understand you. You're proposing to teach a new way of behaving, but the way you sold the job is you use the old way, which you're proposing to replace. This is in the first five minutes. So I slapped the side of my head and I said, you're right. And I said, what do I do about it? And he introduced me to two junior professors, Bill Torbert, Lee Bowman, who'd been his doctoral students at Yale. They invited me to sit on their seminars. And in November, Chris called me into his office and asked me if I wanted to take my master's degree.
NM : Wow, that's crazy.
AD : It's fast. He was a pretty remarkable individual, and we use some of his work around single loop versus double loop learning, some of his ladder of inference work. I was going to ask you about the impact of your grandmother, because that sounds pretty remarkable to have supported you the way she did. I'd also like to ask you about the impact. I really want to ask you about the impact of Chris Ardris on your growth and thinking even today.
DR : Well, my grandmother loved me unconditionally, which I hadn't experienced yet. And I was in my late teens. I couldn't do anything. So she really gave me a foundation. Chris, wow, he gave me a way of looking at organizations. I had been a creep. In my late teens and early twenties, I had discovered that the people I wanted to be friends with wanted to have nothing to do with me.
And then one of my only friends, my best friend at the time was getting his MD at NYU and he wanted to be a psychiatrist. He said he wanted to be a psychiatrist to understand why I was so crazy.
AD : This is your best friend?
DR : Yes. And he said it, with compassion. I could feel his love in it. So one day I'm sitting around his apartment right across the street from NYU, and he comes home to his apartment. He has a yoga book. He insists we do the nine postures in the book right there, we do them. I get up to leave. He gives me the book to take home, and I start practicing yoga daily. So yoga allowed me to discover the things I was doing that people didn't like, and it gave me ways of being aware of myself from the body out so I could stop doing them. And no spiritual texts I looked at gave me a set of right actions to replace my old creepy behavior.
So, Chris had a normative set of behaviors, which really made sense. And then he had a process for learning, which is we would have seminars, we had tape recorders on the desks, we would get feedback as to our behavior at the end of the seminar, we would get to take the tape home and listen to ourselves. That was very powerful. So what happened was, here I had gotten into this program and I hadn't gone to high school. I couldn't imagine, they're turning me down for the doctoral program. So I only applied to Harvard, and April 1st comes along and I get one of those little thin letters.
And I said, oh. So I go to Chris and he said, well, I fought for you as hard as I could, but I have to live with these people. And then he said, I can get you into Case Western and UCLA with a phone call. So I went to Case Western and they accepted me on the spot. I went to UCLA and they accepted me on the spot. And my wife and I had been going out for a year, and we were back in Boston and she had her career already going. And she said, I'll never go to Cleveland. I might go to UCLA.
NM : So Don, can you share a bit about your time at Hughes Aircraft Company and how that work experience was formative and has influenced the rest of your professional career?
DR : You guys ask great questions. So I developed my consulting style there. I had to invent it as I went. And the first thing that happened is I did these year-long training programs. And about the second or third year, I got my first consulting job. Two guys who were in the program, they took me to their boss and they hired me to do an intervention. And I sat down at my first meeting and I realized I hadn't thought about what I was going to do to facilitate the meeting. And on the spot, I decided that what I would do is I would have people summarize before they talked.
And then I figured out very quickly that if I didn't know what people were thinking but not talking about, I couldn't really help them because to go to a meeting without knowing what's really going on is riding blind. So before I would start a job, I would interview all the relevant people privately and confidentially, and I'd get to discover what issues they needed to manage better that they were systematically avoiding.
I have diagnosed over 500 teams, and every team produced issues that needed to be managed better, that were treated as taboo. And then I discovered quickly something Chris had said, which was what people do differs from what they intend to do and what they think they did, and they're unaware of the difference between their intentions and their actions. So then I quickly discovered that the next most important thing I could do is help teams and individuals discover what they were doing that was different from what they intended to do.
AD : You've consulted with companies all over the world and in a variety of industries, the range from high tech, biotech, financial services, law, architecture, politics. As you reflect on these past five decades of work, diagnosing over 500 teams, what are some common causes or the biggest communication challenges you've had to help organizations work through? Can you share any examples?
DR : Sure. Everyone's defensive. We're all defensive. And part of being defensive is that we're unaware of that. And the way it shows up in organizations is they produce issues that need to be managed better, that are systematically avoided. Teams and individuals, what they do differs from what they intend to do, and they're unaware of it. Oftentimes, plans are made and the planning excludes people who need to implement the plan, and that creates resistance.
And then there are always misunderstandings that go unrecognized, and there are always conflicts that don't get addressed. A favorite story about misunderstanding is there was a multinational I worked with, and at the time they were selling boxes of electronics, and they had three different business units that had different kinds of boxes with the electronics. And what they wanted to do was they wanted to sell integrated systems of boxes, but each group had its own operating system, so they needed to come up with one operating system.
So, my job, my consultant job was to help integrate the three operating system laboratories and help them talk it through so they could design one system that worked for all units.
AD : Sounds easy enough, but not in practice, was it?
DR : Well, it's never in practice. I followed McKinsey around for about 15 years. McKinsey would give these organizations a plan but wouldn't tell them anything about how to implement it. So, one of the most interesting things was as we started to talk, it seemed like there was a profound disagreement over basic technology, and that meant that until that was resolved, they couldn't come up with one operating system. So eventually we had a week of meetings in the middle of winter at the O'Hare Hill.
Here I was in Southern California. I thought, well, there's a tunnel between the terminal and the hotel, so I don't need a winter coat. The tunnel was freezing and it was very long. So we set it up. So we would talk through all these issues and it was set up. So we would talk about this technology issue on Thursday morning, and Thursday morning comes and everybody's nervous, and we start to talk it through. And I keep asking and prompting people to ask question after question to get down to the code. And it turned out that there was no disagreement. They just were using different language for the same thing, and it was such a relief.
AD : But it takes some digging in and investigation to figure that out.
DR : Yes, yes. It takes more digging and investigation than people usually do.
AD : Well, it gets me to my thought, which was defensiveness is a barrier. And I know we're going to talk a little bit more about defensiveness here in a minute, but there's a cost when these things don't get addressed. I mean, and you talked about some of that, people get excluded, tensions go up, you don't address issues that should. A lot of activity, no results. Are there other organizational costs you see, when we just allow bad communication or no communication to continue?
DR : It increases individual stress. It eventually undermines trust and morale and collaboration. It can get disheartening. I remember we did one of the major credit card companies and things were really messed up, and we talked to 50 people all over the world and everybody was heartsick. Many people, for some reason, believed that our being there held out some hope. And so everybody spilled their guts and that process, it elevated their emotional state.
What happened there was the guy who brought me in was designing the new IT system for this credit card company, and there was a fundamental disagreement at the top. His boss, the head of engineering, insisted that there was an aberration in that the banks were now starting to clear this credit card paper between themselves and bypassing the main system in the Midwest. And the marketing guys were saying, this is the way the banks are going to go. They're going to use St. Louis less and less. Of course, those two visions require two very different IT systems.
And so I told this guy to stop doing any work and call a meeting of all the senior guys and put this on the table.
So, we did that, and I was talking to this guy by phone. We had never seen each other until we met in the hotel just before the meeting. And after the meeting was over, a guy from McKinsey, there were lots of people in the room. The guy from McKinsey asked how I had supported this guy in his preparation. I told him it was all by phone, and he said he had never seen somebody so well prepared for such a difficult meeting, and he couldn't believe it had all been done by phone.
AD : Right? Because in phone, we lose so much, right? There's so much lost over when you're trying to have these conversations by phone.
DR : I don't find myself.
AD : Why is that?
DR : I'm a yogi and I have no tension left in my body. So what I do when I'm listening is I get my body completely still, and I let the sound through my ears play through my whole body like wind does through a chime. And in doing that, I can tell what people are thinking and not saying, and I say it and they say, how did you know that? So it's the quality of listening. I can tell when somebody's leaning forward and leaning back. I can tell when they're slouching. I can tell when they're frowning.
AD : Well, that gets to my next question, which is our listeners know listening is critical to communication. I think you're describing another layer of listening, like a deeper layer. If most of us are honest, we're not very good listeners. We really only partially listen to what others are saying because we're really just listening to respond. This has an harmful impact on our ability to communicate.
Can you say more about why humans just aren't naturally good listeners? Maybe give us some more thoughts. I'd love the description you just gave about what we can do about it. And as an incentive, my wife has said, if you can help me become a better listener. No, seriously, if you can help me become a better listener, you get to come over for dinner. Okay, just got to fly you out here.
DR : I'm signed up. So when we're born, the first person we talk to is ourselves. And we talk to ourselves for a fairly long time before we talk to others. So talking to ourselves is a very natural and very old thing we do. And it's so compelling that without practice and training, we can't not talk to ourselves when other people are talking. And we confuse the talk inside of ourselves with the talk outside of ourselves. This is where meditation, and this is where the practice of summarizing is really useful. Many people who have reasonable meditation practices say the first thing they discover is the voices inside themselves are not reality.
What I find useful in helping people learn to listen is to an act of meditation where you sit with your eyes closed, and you imagine a conversation you recently had where you really weren't listening. Many conversations with my wife fall in that category, more so than with clients. The first place I learned to listen was with clients because if I didn't listen, I had no value to add. So you do a meditation where you get yourself into a memory where somebody was talking and you weren't really listening, and you want to feel what your body is like, where you're feeling the tension in your body. So we have a non-listening body and we have a listening body. And the listening body is probably the one where you're most relaxed. The more tension we have on our body, the more internal noise that creates. And so the bigger the barrier to hearing what's coming from the outside to the inside.
So one has to own that one doesn't listen. One has to identify the situations where they want to listen better. And then what you can do once you know your non-listening body and where you're holding attention is you do a meditation where you get as relaxed as possible. And then you imagine having the conversation with the person, and you imagine listening, and you start to become aware of where tension starts to come into your body. And then you practice relaxing that tension. You want to get to the point where as soon as the tension of the non-listening body comes on, you recognize it and you're relaxed. But it takes practice.
AD : I was going to say it takes practice. How much practice are we talking about?
DR : It's different for different things.
NM : There's no hopes for Krista, you don't have enough time left.
AD : Ouch. Ouch. Accurate, but ouch. Sorry, Don. Go ahead.
DR : So you want to practice long enough so that you discover that when you're listening, when somebody's talking or actually listening, and you're not thinking about having to listen.
AD : Challenge accepted.
DR : Yes.
NM : So as obvious yet difficult as listening is I find the same thing with asking good questions. Sometimes it's in the responses that I get. Often it's in the nature of the questions that I'm asking. Like Aram, my wife, as well as my teammates, would appreciate it if I could improve the quality of my inquiry. So what advice do you have for me?
DR : I'll tell you a story first. The last 5 or 6 years. So I'm 79, my wife's 78, and a long time ago, it became tedious to be at social mixers. And the last 5 or 6 years, I played a game. And the game was I wanted to get through the evening without ever talking about myself, because when I started, all I wanted to do was talk about myself. That was the purpose of a mixer. So the way I learned to not talk about myself was I asked question after question after question, and it actually became a habit. It became a habit.
So, daughters of very old friends of ours would come over and they would say something and then they would themselves ask the question. They knew I was about to ask. So, I was working with a senior sales executive, a really good guy. All the guys who worked for him loved him. When he started talking, he couldn't stop, but he was interruptible, and I was talking to him about learning how to stop talking. And then I told him about the game I played at social mixers. We talked on a Monday or Tuesday, and he said, I was at a birthday party this weekend, and I spent two hours talking to the wife of a friend of mine, and all I did was ask questions. I never said a thing about myself. And at the end of the party, she came up to me and said, I love talking to you. I never felt like I knew you so well.
AD : That's fascinating, right?
DR : Yes.
NM : Hey everyone. Nolan here. I have to jump in today's podcast for part A of the show. Be sure to rate, review and subscribe to the NEGOTIATEx podcast if you haven't already. And also join us next week for part B of this awesome interview.
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