Senior Lecturer of Communication & Ethics MIT’s Sloan School of Management, Leigh Hafrey, helps us to consider how humility and a strong sense of ethics can help or hinder the communication process.
Guest Starring Leigh Hafrey – Senior Lecturer of Communication & Ethics MIT’s Sloan School of Management
Produced & Hosted by Adam Greenfield
Executive Produced by Patrick Yurick, Instructional Designer – MIT OGE
Executive Produced by Heather Konar, Communication Director – MIT OGE
Special thanks to the following editors who provided us invaluable feedback that aided in the development of this show:
Christopher O’Keeffe, Co-Founder of Podcation
Kristy Bennet, Manager – MIT Women’s League
Jennifer Cherone, Phd Candidate – MIT Burge Laboratory
Erik Tillman, Phd, Formerly of the Kim Lab & Currently A Fellow at Vida Ventures, LLC
The Great Communicators Podcast is a part of Gradcommx. Gradcommx, targeted at enhancing research communication, is the first offering of Gradx – a professional development project created for the graduate student population at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the Office For Graduate Education.
MUSIC & SOUNDS
“All The Best Fakers” by Nick Jaina is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License (http://freemusicarchive.org)
“Lord Weasel” by Blue Dot Sessions is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License. (http://freemusicarchive.org)
“Borough” by Blue Dot Sessions is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License. (http://freemusicarchive.org)
“Deliberate Thought” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) is Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/
Welcome to The Great Communicators Podcast presented by The MIT Office of Graduate Education, a professional development podcast expressly designed to bring lessons from the field to our graduate student researchers.
My name is Adam Greenfield and one game I remember playing a lot as a kid was the telephone game. You know the one, where you start with a line of people and the person on one end says something into the ear of the person next to them, then see if it’s the same message by the time it gets to the other end?
Well, there’s a bit of that game in the episode we’re about to hear. It’s knowing the world is full of different people and part of communicating is listening, then responsibly engaging in good faith with the new knowledge you’ve gained.
Our guest today, through his own lifetime of experiences and encounters with people all over the world, has learned that as he’s grown older, communicating effectively hasn’t gotten any easier. Instead, it’s harder.
It has gotten more complex maybe because I realize how many different ways people tell stories.
That’s Leigh Hafrey, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, and he’s had his hands in the communication and ethics cookie jars for some time now.
I have taught at Sloan since 1995. I started out teaching in the communication area. I still have that affiliation, but I now teach leadership and ethics, and communication factors into what I do in both of those areas, but it is less, obviously, what I teach.
But what Leigh mentioned earlier, about how communicating has essentially become more difficult, he learned from his experiences prior to teaching at Sloan.
Growing up, I worked/lived in multiple cultures. I spoke- this would be relevant, I think, for a lot of our students- several different languages, French, German, some Russian, and some Romanian. Working across those cultures and the languages that go with them, I realize that A) There is no one right way to do anything, but B) Many cases, people have the same impulses, the same instincts, and frankly the same values. So, how do you negotiate the combination of difference and similarity that I think we all see when we work across cultures. What story do you tell to recognize that? That nuanced day-to-day experience of living in the world.
This touches a bit on what other guests in this podcast series also touched on, which is an understanding that our backgrounds shape us. Because Leigh has encountered various cultures and spent time in them throughout his life, he now has a different way of looking at something. Notice how I said different, not wrong or right or better or worse. Just different.
Before we move further, I think it’s important to point out that you don’t need to be a world traveler or multilinguist to be able to effectively communicate with others or even bring something credible and compelling to the conversation. Again, we all have our own lifetime’s worth of experiences and knowledge. Couple that with a willingness to accept the differences and expertise of others and everyone benefits.
Yet, even with all these distinctions and variations in ideas and knowledge, Leigh starts off with maybe a little pie in the sky thinking….
I think we would all like to believe that there is an absolute truth out there and that, over time, we will discover it and live in bliss and an innocence for the rest of our collective lives, and that may be the reality.
Of course, this is also a short-lived daydream.
I think for the moment, we have to recognize that we differ in our perspectives on the way the world works and on the truth or falsity of any given premise. So, we need to find a way to make the case, whatever we believe the case to be, and we need to have the patience to sit down with people who, with equal good faith, come to totally different conclusions based on the same set of facts.
When Leigh talks about making the case, he’s actually referring to argumentation skills and the need to learn how to argue well.
By argue well, I do not mean engage in deceit or manipulation of the facts but to, in good faith, do our best to take in all the facts, weigh their relative significance given where we are headed collectively, and then make the case. It is not just feedback, it’s also your position. The conversation matters. So, you need to be able to put together a good argument. You also need to have the skill, the ability, the patience, maybe it’s wisdom to listen to the other person, hear what he or she is saying, and build it into a conversation that then moves towards consensus.
Also inherent in this consensus is more than just being amenable to the things others are saying but also the ability to set aside any preconceived notions. This may seem like it flies in the face of all that we’ve talked about in the series so far regarding the impossibility of coming at something without any kind of bias but it’s more about finding the balance between having your own ideas and absorbing the ideas of others. More importantly, it’s about a willingness to accept that maybe, just maybe, you really don’t have all the data or information on the subject.
You have to willingly set aside your own assumptions and recognize that maybe you don’t know what is going on, that you don’t have a full understanding of the situation in which you find yourself. People, and this goes back to our central focus here on communication, people by and large will willingly open their mouths to say things. We all like to talk about ourselves, right? But, the people who I think adjust best to the world that we now know, given the material I teach, you will understand, I would say, too, that the best leaders listen to what people say and listen in a way that allows them to hear, not just what is said on the surface but the implications of what is being said. Those people have the ability to imagine what lies behind the surface message, to work with that. And I don’t think it is easy and I don’t know that there is any one way to get there beyond experience, but I do also think that respect for others makes it possible to practice the patience that allows you to hear what is getting said, and then you respond.
Leigh also points out that how we respond and communicate can depend on the content of the work at hand. While making sure the details and specifics of the research are not forgotten, there’s a responsibility to be sure the audience understands why it matters. It’s a calibration between what you are presenting and what the audience has also brought to the table, including their expectations. To illustrate this point, Leigh uses British theater.
In one of my courses, I use a play by Michael Frayn, Copenhagen, which is about Niels Bohr and Heisenberg, two Nobel winning physicists, who have a meeting during World War 2 that is all about the atomic bomb and the projects that the Nazis on one side and the Americans on the other were developing. The third character in the play, Margrethe, Bohr’s wife, plays the role of the public. She tests both physicists who are deeply involved in their work and their research and says effectively, and she does some of this just passively, but does what you are telling us make sense? Why does this matter? How does it matter? Explain to me as a stand-in for the broader public what you are doing and why what you are doing matters and how we judge it to be good or bad on moral grounds. I think it doesn’t have to be the atom bomb. It doesn’t have to be nuclear energy, but anything that serious researchers engage in, in the name of, call it pure science, they still, I think for ethical reasons, need to be aware of the way in which what they do intersects with daily life.
So clearly there’s always the lure of choosing personal fulfillment over truth and knowledge in science. Leigh also acknowledges its reality.
I do not think much of that happens at a place like MIT, but the temptation exists. So, when we talk about professional communication, I would argue that you need to be mindful of the risk of, the potential for seduction, shall we say. Your name in lights, I think all of us have a little bit of that somewhere. You want to test for the motives that bring you to the work that you do, the way you do it, and the way you transmit it.
Leigh also uses the word professionalism, even when teaching, when it comes to standards and ethics in your work and how you communicate it to an audience.
I ask my classes here at Sloan, how many of you think of yourselves as professionals? Virtually, every hand goes up because we have very positive associations with the term, and we should. But, what does profession or professionalism mean? A bunch of things, including a code of conduct. So, a set of ethical standards, the mindfulness that goes with that, so you know that you have a trust-based relationship with society. Those who don’t have your expertise, which is another key component to professionalism, trust you to deliver what you do well. Well means, first of all, I think about putting their, that is the patient or client, interests ahead of your own but also adhering to a set of standards that the profession has articulated in communication with the larger society. I would argue that people who work in academics who are doing serious research in the sciences but also the humanities, the arts, have some obligation to think about the relationship between what they do for their own pleasure, for the pleasure of people who do the same kind of work they do, but what responsibility they have to the larger society. I do not think you ever want to let that go away, and communication makes it possible for you to ensure that.
One glance around and it’s clear we live in a world full of people from various backgrounds. Because of this, everyone has their own perspective borne from their own experiences and learned knowledge. And a significant portion of communicating, according to Leigh Hafrey, is not just acknowledging the existence of others but listening to what others have to say, as well.
But it doesn’t stop there. Now that you’ve listened, the next step is to engage with your audience in good faith with the new knowledge and information you’ve taken in. As a communicator, you have a responsibility to society when comes to these good faith efforts in ethical standards. No pressure or anything.
Thanks for listening to The Great Communicators Podcast brought to you by The MIT Office of Graduate Education. My name is Adam Greenfield, and feel free to talk amongst yourselves.