Episode 11 [Unedited]

This is episode is the full, unedited interview with Leigh Hafrey. If you haven’t listened to the fully produced episode yet, we strongly encourage you to do so before listening to this one. They’re shorter in length and much more refined.


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.


“Divider” by Chris Zabriskie is licensed under Attribution 4.0 International License (http://freemusicarchive.org)



Hello, Adam Greenfield here, host of The Great Communicators podcast series. What you’re about to hear is the full, unedited interview with one of the guests we spoke with. If you haven’t listened to the fully produced episode yet, I definitely encourage you to do so before listening to this one. They’re shorter in length and much more refined. You can find them all at gradx.mit.edu/podcasts.

The idea behind these longer, unedited conversation is to give you an opportunity to hear the entire talk, warts and all. This is not only a fun way to hear the full flow of the conversation but it also emphasizes the importance of the points made in the shorter, produced episodes, which again, can be found at gradx.mit.edu/podcasts.

Thanks for listening and enjoy the conversation.

Patrick Yurick:  Could you state your name and your job title?

Leigh Hafrey:  My name is Leigh Hafrey.  I am a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management.

P:  How long have you been doing the work that you have been doing?

L:  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.

P:  What drew you to that line of work?

L:  I guess I could go back to my earliest days, I spent a lot of time reading growing up.  In fact, I have now published two books that focus on narrative, how we tell stores, why we tell stores, the fact that we can’t help telling stories, and the importance of checking ourselves as we tell those stories for integrity and accuracy, and also the implant that those stories have on the people around us, which is a significant component to leadership.

P:  Interesting.  Has your definition, I mean, it sounds like you have a very nuance definition of communication.  Has it changed over your career? Or has it always been kind of steadfast for you?

L:  I think my idea of how we communicate effectively has not changed.  It has gotten more complex maybe because I realize how many different ways people tell stories.  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 with 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.

P:  Very interesting.  I am kind of interested in what you see.  So, as I have come to understand it, the graduate PhD candidate students here at MIT are really virgin researchers or professionals in the beginning of their career.  Whereas undergraduates, they might not have any experience. These people are actually doing the work, but they are trying to figure out how to have this foothold, and communication is an important part of that.  What do you notice about the students that you work with at this level or at those levels that I mentioned?

L:  At the graduate level, students, they come to MIT and similar institutions because they want to do in-depth research.  They want to identify problems. They want to identify solutions to the problem. They are usually working in a field that has existed for some time in which other people have done serious work.  So, to do what you do effectively at the graduate level, you need to, forgive me for using the phrase, but go down the rabbit hole. Right? You need to find out what’s going on, and you need to differentiate what you produce from the work that a lot of other people have done previously, sometimes on exactly the same topic.  When that happens, you tend to forget, I think, reasonably that the world out there doesn’t really care about the finer points of what you are discerning. The larger public, which may actually have a serious stake in the work that you are doing, also needs to understand why you have done what you have done, why the answers that you have come up with differ from the answers other people have come up with might and might actually be more accurate.  So, reaching out, feels to me fundamental. It may also feel to the individual graduate student like a waste of time because it doesn’t do the kind of defining work that you feel you need to do professionally, but if that work is to have short, near-term impact, you have to be able to say to the world, “This is why what I am doing matters.”

P:  So, then communication, is it a function of the science itself or the work that you are doing?

L:  It will depend.  The communication about your work will depend certainly, to some extent, on the work , the content of what you are doing.  Absolutely. You can’t walk away from the specifics of your project, your research. But at the same time, you need to think about how you reconcile or adjust/adapt what you are doing to the more general public discourse and what people who don’t have your detailed background will expect, what vocabulary you can use to help them understand why what you do matters.  So, you are looking for alignment of your own work and the content of your work with what the world at large has on the table for discussion and the expectations that they bring to the world of science. 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.

P:  I was thinking about, as you were saying that, I have a background in comic book art, and I teach a lot of people how to make comic books.  One of the things that I have come across, even I have made the mistake, my undergraduate is in graphic design and marketing, so I focused a little too much on the marketing and less on the content.  It is interesting how horrible it is when you realize that you have a great marketing plan for content that doesn’t deserve it. I am kind of curious about that sentiment in the sense of like, how much do you have to keep your audience in mind as you are working, because that could be a rabbit hole in and of itself.

L:  Of course.  Thinking solely in terms of the relevance of what you are doing, however deep the science, can be a significant disadvantage to a researcher.  We are talking about a spectrum. Earlier, I said that the content of your project, the content of the science that you are doing, matters deeply in the communication about it.  To look around at the world and say, “well, people have an interest…pick your top. So, I am going to do that.” Or, “I am going to craft a marketing message that will appeal to them because it means it will be easy for me to get grants because it will put my name in lights, I will get mentioned in papers and social media.”  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 are do, the way you do it, and the way you transmit it.  I guess too, we have two terms under consideration here. Professional communication. We have already talked a fair amount about communication. Professional matters, too. What does it mean to be a professional? 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, seven 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.  people worry about the profession’s ability to corner a market and to establish monopoly control. So, if you limit the number of people who can become doctors, theoretically, you could also make sure that you keep your salaries high. ON the plus side, I think we also see professions as corrupting for market failures. So, it is not about generating a profit. it is not about lining your pockets. It is about seeing to it that people gets services that otherwise would not be available to them. The key term here is service. You are providing a service of one kind or another.  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.

P:  It just struck me, first, do you think this?  But then, what do you think about what I am about to say, which is one of the things that we have come across, there are not a lot of scientists/professionals in STEM that are getting good communication education.  A lot of the people we talked to have never gotten it when they were at school for what they were doing as engineers or as language specialists, neuro-scientists. No one taught them how to be good communicators; they had to figure it out on their own.  This is starting to feel like a trend within the STEM field, and I am wondering why do you think that is?

L:  Do people in STEM these days not get training in communication?  I have not spent enough time in the community myself to be able to say with any accuracy.  I would say, and if you think about the way we have educated ourselves over centuries now, rhetoric, grammar, and so on used to play a fundamental role in what we thought of a serious education.  We look back on those times now and say how ignorant those people were to think that that would provide us with the truths and make this society or any society work. We have all of this empirical evidence for the way society, people, nature work, and that matters easily as much as the ability to turn a fine phrase.  So, maybe the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of believing whatever you do in the lab will give us the truth and that’s all that matters. We have forgotten that communicating what we discover matters equally. You think about the kinds of courses people offer now and the ongoing concern/lament about the failure of writing schools of undergraduates and so on.  I think we know that it matters. Certainly at Sloan, we have the courses that allow us to address the need for good writing and speaking skills, and students walk away from those courses knowing that they have learning things that will make a difference. People skills matter, and they don’t just matter in management, although the MBAs go off for the summer between their two years and discover that, indeed, those people skills make all the difference in the world.  I would argue the same thing is true for the scientists on campus.

P:  That is interesting because I just, you triggered this idea, I mean, the people who invented modern science or the original researchers who were trying to develop a code of communication.  They couldn’t have foreseen the advent of instant communication, video, podcasts, or the ability to just talk to somebody on the phone because it was like, publishing was the #1 way to connect to people at a distance.  I am wondering, from your standing, you talked a little bit about ethics…I do not know if there has been ethical guidelines that apply, I am sure there has on some level, to multimedia and different ways of communicating.  How do you go about constructing ethics of professionalism when you are experimenting with new forms of communication?

L:  Innovation poses a standard and regular challenge to our notions of right and wrong.  We now have sites that address the question of ethics in the online world. So, if we want to talk technology alone, as you articulate new ways of communicating but also new ways of doing anything, it’s not just about communication, it’s all of this stuff that is coming out connected with science and technology, you wind up playing catch up.  In other words, here is the challenge. Now, how do we manage it? One word that looms in the background, regulate. How do we regulate the uses of one kind of technology or another? How do we regulate the results? Sometimes, the unforeseen consequences of a scientific discovery that really does matter and will make a difference to the way we live our lives and yet has implications that we haven’t fully understood.  The debate around pure science goes to the same point. At what point does a discovery that on the face of it represents a real gain to knowledge as we have conceived it? At what point does it have an impact that we didn’t foresee and that may have serious negative consequences for segments of the society? How do we manage that? So, the regulators are playing catch-up. The ethicists are playing catch-up, but at the same time, I think you could reasonably argue that the kinds of challenges we face today, we have faced in the past.  When we decided that the Earth was not flat, and that had implications. People wrestled with the challenge and found ways of dealing. Some of it represented a true advance in knowledge and a way of seeing ourselves. We go through these cycles, Kuhn, Thomas Kuhn, with the structure of scientific revolutions, I think recognized that in the area of science specifically, you go through these cycles of developing, confirming, and then dismantling ways of seeing the world. The ethics implied in that cycle are real and something that we live with on a daily basis.

P:  So, I guess my last question or so, doesn’t have to be, but one of my last questions is about what you, just going back to the students who are coming in, even your students…what is something that you notice is a trend or at least something that you feel like all students should work on?  Ones that are coming in and seeking help in this kind of area. Is there anything or is it different for everybody?

L:  When I look at my students in any of the courses I teach, I see a need for skills in argumentation.  That is, 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.  But, 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.  So, our engagement in this has everything to do with communication. We have an obligation to figure out 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. How do you build a good argument? Communication for leaders here at Sloan focuses on persuasion and the importance of making a strong case for your position, and I do the same in my leadership and ethics courses because communication, a good argument makes the difference there, too.  People, I think, instinctively know when they are being presented with a fairly framed set of circumstances, evidence. They would believe, at least short term, the person who manages to do that well. I would argue, when we think about communication, when I talk to you, I talk at you. I think that qualifies as communication, but the reality is that it is only communication if you hear what I am saying and you have the opportunity to come back at me. 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.  Those skills matter hugely.

P:  Was there ever a time where you learned some of these lessons?  Where you realized something about communication that you didn’t know before?

L:  I mentioned earlier that I grew up in an environment where I heard a lot of different languages and lived in a lot of different cultures.  That experience to my mind shaped my perspective. When you realize that people can live happily doing the same things very differently, call it tolerance, call it inclusion, maybe that’s a better word, but once you include all those differences, how do you build, maybe it’s the global society, how do you build a global society that allows us to live in relative harmony even as we do the things we do, the way we do them differently culture by culture?  So, facing that, I think I understood that building the conversation makes all the difference. I do it in the seminar room. I do it in my courses. What I see suggests that that multifaceted conversation gives people a feeling or fulfillment that they don’t otherwise have.

P:  You said multifaceted, and I’m curious about what you mean by that.  First, contextually, why did you grow up with all the different languages that you were learning?  Were you traveling?

L:  I got exposed to that world at two levels.  One, both my parents were immigrants to the States.  My father joined the foreign service when I was a child.  So, we traveled a lot in that context. In some ways, going abroad from The United States, since both my parents had come as immigrants, the Unites States was going home.  That fluidity, I think, affected the way I think about the world. One of the courses I teach here at Sloan brings in stories from a dozen different cultures, I think it is maybe ten specifically.  Of course, the Sloan population fairly represents what we see at MIT as a whole. It is very international. I think at the moment, 36% are people from countries other than the US, and even a certain number of the Americans are here having grown up, been born in and grown up in other countries, are green card holders, whatever.  So, we live, at least in this environment, in a world where you have a lot of different cultures and a lot of hyphenate individuals who think of themselves as belong to multiple cultures. There is a kind of cosmopolitanism to the world that we know that I find very rich and very inspiring, but it also comes with the risk that you wind up not knowing where you belong.  So, managing dislocation feels to me fundamental. I don’t think anyone likes feeling like he or she is floating on the surface of things without any roots. So, how do we establish that? You want an appreciation of the common experience even as you celebrate the differences, and that is where the multifaceted quality that I just referred to comes from. There is an entity, sense of community that at the same time recognizes that people live that community experience in very different ways.

P:  Do you have any last-minute tips or tricks, some memorization thing that you can do while trying to figure out how to communicate?  If you don’t, that’s fine, I just figured I’d ask.

L:  Fundamental to any communication in the context that I have just articulated, I think you have to be willing to listen.  You have to be willing to suspend judgement short term. 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 adjust best to the world that we now know, given the material I teach, you will understand, I would understand, 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, 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.