Finding handholds when you don’t understand the conversation

Here's my fancy new rice cooker and instruction book -- with all the buttons and instructions in Japanese. Not sure if my bungling this would be an issue of poor machine translation or more about the number of functions!  (My old rice maker only had a cook/warm toggle. I unplugged it to turn it off.)
Here’s my fancy new rice cooker and instruction book — with all the buttons and instructions in Japanese. Not sure if my bungling this would be an issue of poor machine translation or more about the number of functions! (My old rice maker only had a cook/warm toggle. I unplugged it to turn it off.)

People are saying things.  They seem to be words.  They seem to be in some type of sentence structure.  But what are they saying?  Or perhaps you are trying to read something that is written in some language that somebody would understand—and that person is not you. 

And it’s too much.  It’s too much.  It begins to wash over you, like the background chatter of other people’s conversations at a café.  Then all of a sudden, you jolt and remember you were supposed to be paying attention because now you are supposed to do something or answer a question and that would be…what, exactly?

Having moved to a country where I am still learning the language (and likely will be for a long time), this is constant.  So when a client mentioned that they were working with some consultants* on something they knew nothing about, and that they found it difficult to follow the conversations and be proactive—it made me think of all the parallels to learning a foreign language.

One of the most challenging things in an unfamiliar language is that you can’t filter.  You hear a combination of sounds and you cannot tell where one word ends and the next begins, let alone which is a noun or a verb or the name of a place.  (This is probably why many people don’t bother reading the standard privacy policy written in legalese.)

My strategy for tackling this inability is to find as many handholds as possible, and to use one to get to the next—the way a climber uses this handhold or that foothold to launch themselves to the next one and eventually climb up the mountain.

What does this mean in understanding a language?  That you go from hearing something like the wah-wah-wah of grownups talking on Peanuts (really a trombone with a mute) to hearing something that you know is a question to hearing, “Would you like something-something?”  And for a topic that’s not your area of expertise, maybe you go from hearing “acronym jargon jargon jargon” to “Some government agency announced that they are making changes to policy-that-applies-to-organizations-that-work-with-children.”  Then you can hear that and know whether or not you need to pay attention (filtering!) based on whether or not your organization works with children.

Here are some tactics for finding handholds (or footholds) when you don’t understand the conversation:

  • Start by identifying words—as in, you can tell when one word ends and the next begins.  (This is probably more for learning an actual foreign language rather than a different work language, but in the latter case, you likely already have this down.)
  • Use props, diagrams, or gestures as much as possible.  As someone who had to order custom sized curtains for her very tall windows using elementary level Japanese—and had them come out the way I intended—I attribute my success to being able to point towards different samples in the store, gesturing, and the diagrams on the order form for getting the measurements into the correct fields.  However, diagrams are also helpful for getting everyone on the same page when you’re dealing with something abstract (data definitions) or working with people across different disciplines.
  • Learn and leverage patterns. For example, I knew that generally after you get seated at a restaurant, a server will come and ask if you are ready to order.  So I can point at the menu even if I don’t actually understand the words in the question.  Familiarity with patterns is helpful not only in routine interactions but also in navigating websites—like which button is “cancel” vs. “submit”!  A work example of this might be that you are working on a project to implement a donor database instead of using spreadsheets.  The pattern, when you implement something new, is that this is a change from how people are used to working, and changes require some management in order to stick.  So even if you know nothing about databases, you can ask about the change management plan.
  • Become familiar with the words that answer who/what/where/when/how.  This might sound silly if you’re say, a fundraiser trying to understand how to accept a cryptocurrency donation, since maybe you and the person explaining it to you both speak English.  However, it’s still helpful to be able to tell which wah-wah-wah is the name of a form of cryptocurrency and which wah-wah-wah is a service or an institution that you need to coordinate the process with.
  • Leverage what you know as a jumping off point and grab onto the next handhold.  When you’re learning a foreign language, it’s really helpful to have a good understanding of the mechanics of your own language.  Let’s say you don’t understand algorithms and your teenage nephew sighs with exasperation every time you ask about a new social media platform.  However, the key communications principle of needing to understand your audience doesn’t change, even if who they are and what appeals to them and what’s the best way to reach them keeps evolving.
  • This can also mean you need to let go of something you do know.  A climber has to let go of the holds they’re using to make their way to the next one and keep climbing up.  Maybe getting a foothold in being more inclusive means letting go of only considering “they” to be a plural pronoun not to be used to refer to a single person.
  • Then build connections back to what you know.  Turn that leap (from one foothold to the next) into a bridge that you can traverse back and forth and build upon in the future.  For example, maybe you learn that the social media algorithm will show people more videos that are similar to ones they liked or spent time interacting with.  Now you can separate the mechanics of which videos get promoted from the principle that people want to watch things that are interesting to them.  This allows you to ask separate questions about how that similarity is determined (by tags or metadata vs. users like you) and questions about what is most interesting to your audience.

While I am fairly comfortable working and communicating across different work languages (and disciplines), I am curious to hear what has worked well for you!  Please share any other tips.

*As a consultant, my stance is that you’ve hired me the consultant to help you.  That includes making sure you actually understand enough to be able to make informed decisions (and implement the solution, if that’s the plan).  Otherwise, my job is not done yet!  So if you’re not understanding what a consultant is telling you, it’s fair to ask them to re-explain in order for you to understand.

What I did on my summer (not a) vacation

Brown and black tabby asleep on a white comforter with her ears alert and her paw covering her eyes
There was considerably less cat-like lounging this summer than one might have hoped for… (Description: Brown and black tabby asleep on a white comforter with her ears alert and her paw covering her eyes)

I have been meaning to write a blog post about giving oneself grace.  It has been one of those lessons I’ve been trying to learn over and over again.  And I’ve been struggling with the post – I started it and then I got kind of stuck, because I’m still in the middle of relearning it.  Not that there is a “done” state for this type of thing – but perhaps because I’m still actively struggling with it, I need to step away for a bit.  I’ve been writing long enough to know that sometimes you need to set that piece of writing aside for a time and come back to it later.  Like when you’re having an argument with someone and you decide that it would be more productive to give each other some space and revisit the topic when you’re able to have a productive conversation.  And what is struggling with life lessons if not having an internal argument with yourself?

So instead, this is perhaps a bit more of an update than a post.  These past few months, I’ve been busy with moving to Tokyo, Japan, with my husband and our cat.  (And yes, I did add it to my LinkedIn profile because this has been like full-time job, even if I did have some client work in the mix as well!)  Busy selling our house back in Baltimore, finding an apartment, and now getting ready to move and set up a new apartment when we didn’t bring much furniture or any appliances with us!  Then of course, there’s the whole part about moving to a new country where I don’t speak or read the language (at least not beyond an elementary level)—yet. 

Lots of things have been rolling around in my head over the last few months.  That is, in addition to the endless to-do lists, constantly shifting timelines and dependencies, and the myriad dances of who needs and who is supposed to send us which information when…. (Can you tell I’m a project manager?)  But sometimes our greatest insights come from when we’ve brought our experiences and lenses into a wholly new realm—whether that’s a new field, the wild world of international relocation, a new language and culture, or simply learning something new.

Here are few of the topics I’ve been musing on in my head recently:

  • How to know when you’re ready to move on from a role or from an organization or field
  • The power of sharing photos 1:1 (or actually being social)
  • Finding handholds and building bridges when you don’t understand the conversation—and how helpful visual aids can be
  • That I’d probably remember the reading I do for learning better if I wrote about what I’ve read

While I’m not promising anything, if you’d be particularly interested in reading my thoughts on one of those topics, please let me know!

My heart is full of food for thought from 22NTC

Looking at a desk from the point of view of person sitting at it: There is a laptop positioned below an external monitor; both have things on the screen.  There is a mic to the left and some printed papers between photographer and laptop.  There is another large monitor to the right, off.  And a tabby cat is standing to the right looking towards the left.
This year I volunteered backstage (assisted by my cat, Amelia) in addition to presenting.

Once upon a time I went to NTEN’s annual Nonprofit Technology Conferences and came away with all sorts of innovative, savvy, practical tips that I could take back and apply at work—sometimes that week.

These days I do a lot less operational work in my day-to-day and more strategic work (let me know if you need help figuring out any blob shaped problems!).  So, while NTCs are still jampacked with practical knowledge exchange and lots of strategic content as well, I find myself reflecting most on the takeaways and questions posed that strike at the soul, why we do what we do and how that should inform what we do, whom we partner with, and the way in which we do our work.

Here are the things that struck me or resonated, and that I am still chewing on.

We have been lied to, and there are people who benefit from us internalizing these lies.

There was an excellent session (with Aki Shibuya, Bettina Sferrino, Vanice Dunn, and Tristan Penn) taking a systemic look at imposter syndrome.  This is something I’ve long struggled with, always wondering when someone was going to find me out, and I really appreciated a look at the systems that perpetuate this experience and who benefits/is hurt by the belief that this something that people like me need to fix internally. 

Are there ways in which we all benefit from learning to trust our own voices and judgment, from gaining experience and the confidence that can come with it?  Sure.  However, the panel also dug into the organizational practices and dynamics that require we feel inadequate – so that we buy into the idea that we must work more hours to make up for what we lack, so that we question our own judgment while accepting the judgment of others in power, so that we strive harder and harder to reach goal posts being moved further and further away because we were never meant to reach them.  These can be practices like not having clear and consistent expectations for performance, and “accountability” that is applied unevenly.  And while there are more ways to make a shift if you are a manager who has positional power, anyone can model things like, acknowledging when you don’t know something, and using one’s own privilege where you can.  

In the chat for another session, there was a beautifully open exchange between several attendees about the use of identity-first (e.g., disabled people) vs. person-first (e.g., people with disabilities) language.  The discussion was around whether it was a way to reclaim “disabled” from being a bad word that we must euphemize, or, whether we should recognize that there are people with disabilities who prefer person-first language.  (All of the people involved in this thread of discussion identified as disabled or as having a disability.) One person who grew up hearing it used negatively against them (as someone with a disability), preferred person-first language. Another person questioned the need to remind anyone that they are a person first. It ended with some folks deciding they needed to reflect some more on whether this might be internalized ableism and people acknowledging there may be generational differences and people may be in different places in their journeys.

“Normal is a scam.”

– Alice Wong

The first keynote was a conversation between Amy Sample Ward and Alice Wong, who runs the Disability Visibility Project (which includes a podcast and book of the same name).  There was a lot of discussion how access is love, about survival, and about how normal is a scam. 

I’ve been working with a coach for my own personal development, and one of the things I’ve been working is on is not judging how I feel, what I want, and generally things about myself.  To declare something (or someone) normal or abnormal is both to participate in this judging and to perpetuate the myths about how the things that make us who we are, that these are things that are wrong (or right) with us.  Who gains from that? 

What do we gain when we accept all of who we are and who others are?  I think only then we can imagine the world that Amy invites us in to build together:

There is no community without accountability—nor without grace.

One of the things I really appreciate about the NTEN community and the Nonprofit Technology is that we a.) keep it real, and b.) thinking critically about technology and the role it plays in creating a more equitable world.

Now, lots of people and organizations throw around the word “community” and don’t always back it up with systems and practice.  So I loved what keynote speaker Angelica Ross said about community:

Now accountability and grace are not mutually exclusive.  But sometimes, when we want people to do better and we know that they can, we can be frustrated and impatient.  However, we can’t control what other people will do or think or feel—even as we feel the urgency of helping others see what we can see from where we sit.

And of course, the penultimate is to actually put our values into practice, and not surprisingly an event full of nonprofit techies is ready to dive in:

Saeed Jones reminded us that there are people in our community who notice how we speak up—or don’t.  Are we learning about the struggles of others?  How will they know they are safe with us?  This can be a form of accountability we practice within ourselves.

Speaking of accountability and actively practicing our values, Ken Montenegro asked a really important question during his session with Colin Boyle about planning for failure:

They were talking about the context of a crisis and how sometimes the person making the decision is simply the person who happens to be there in that moment—and how it’s worth pausing to ask whether this decision should be made by this interim person or whether to gather the right people to make this decision first.  Although this was about IT disasters, this too can be applied much more broadly.  Are the people making the decision the people who understand the implications and who will be impacted by them?

Stories are powerful because of what they allow us to imagine.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the stories we tell about ourselves and that we tell ourselves (and others) about the world.

One really powerful story we often tell is about failure.  Do we tell it as a story of catastrophe, of how we have become failures?  Or do we view it as falling down while learning to ride a bike, part of the process of learning how to do new things?  Is it a pathway to confidence?

(One of these days they’ll allow you to edit tweets, but “earning” is a typo that was supposed to be “learning.”)

There are, of course, also the stories we do not tell:

Related to the stories we tell (or don’t tell) about failure are the stories we tell ourselves about what we are capable of, and what’s possible.  Are we honoring the full potential of who we are?

Speaking of “the full potential of who we are,” the U.S. political divides have lately centered a lot on the power of stories and language and which ideas are okay or not okay.  (Judging again!)  People are demanding that school boards ban teaching Critical Race Theory, ban saying the word “gay” in schools, and banning books that make them feel uncomfortable.  (There are of course, many far more restrictive and persecutive laws being proposed passed across the country—and books and stories and language are part of this broader discourse.  There are others who can speak to that better than I can.)

Who gets to see themselves and be seen?  Who gets to imagine the future of their dreams?

And stories can be incredibly powerful when we feel alone and disconnected.

And, as Saeed Jones pointed out, many people will say they’re “not poetry people” while still pulling out poems for special occasions.

Imagine if we gave ourselves that gift.  (Thank you, Bettina Sferrino, for that lovely prompt.)

An effective meme can function like a poem as a shortcut to that spark of recognition.

That’s me paraphrasing something said by Saeed Jones in the closing keynote conversation with Amy Sample Ward.  There were a lot of gems and I finally managed to gather myself enough to draw sketchnotes for this one! 

On that note, I’ll let these roll around my brain some more, but drop a line if any of these gems resonated with you as well.

Meetings are better with collaborative notes

It now feels like ages ago when someone at an organization I was volunteering with introduced me to collaborative notes: an openly shared Google Document that could be edited by any of us at the meeting and accessed by us all afterwards.

It was a revelation.

Now, I had always been a huge proponent of taking notes—I even once had a job where part of my role was taking board meeting minutes.  I had also been an advocate for sharing those notes with everyone who was at the meeting. 

But.

Collaborative notes are next level.

Let me tell you why.

Meeting notes, when done well, serve as documentation of what was discussed, decisions made, and who is responsible for which follow-up items.

To be fair, not all meeting notes are created equally, but they should all contain some key information: when the meeting occurred, who participated, what was discussed, decisions that were made, and any action items that resulted (hopefully also with who is responsible for completing them and by when).

When you have documented this key information in the meeting notes, then meeting notes can serve a few key functions.

Meeting notes can serve as a decision log, documenting decisions that were made, alongside with notes about the discussion leading to them, or why those decisions were made.  This makes it easier to go back and look, when circumstances change, to see whether a decision should be adjusted.  Listing the participants also allows you to see who was or was not part of making that decision.

Meeting notes can also act as a way to track who said they would do what, so that you can follow up with the appropriate person after the meeting.  Even for things I’ve signed up to do, action items in meeting notes serve as a reminder that I can then check off (I do like to check things off!).  In turn, my checking things off can tell anyone else looking at the meeting notes that this task has been completed.

And of course, meeting notes can serve as a bit of a historical record for a team, a program, or a project.  How are we progressing?  What changed along the way?  Perhaps, what did we learn?

Shared meeting notes give everyone access to one central source of key information from the meeting.

In general, it’s a good practice to share meeting notes because so that people who were not there (or who joined late or had to leave early) can access at least some of the key information from that meeting.  It’s also good because no one remembers everything anyway.  Even if people take their own notes, then there is a different set of notes per every participant and without shared meeting notes, there is no one source of truth about what was discussed, what was decided, or who needs to do what afterwards. 

And this is critical: Shared meeting notes help create shared meaning. 

Imagine what happens when one person writes down that Keisha from marketing will share the microsite mockups by the end of the week, and another person writes down that Marketing will share the website mockups by Monday. 

Disputes can abound when everybody has their own version of what happened at the meeting.  But having a central source of shared meeting notes means that there is one version to dispute rather than 8 conflicting ones. 

Collaborative notes, when everyone in the meeting contributes to them, give participants more agency in shaping the meaning of the meeting.

Speaking of shared meaning, creating the record of what happened during the meeting together also gives participants more agency in shaping this meaning—not only during the meeting, but what gets documented afterwards.  People are usually more engaged when they both have more agency and can see how their inputs make a difference.  People will have their own interpretations and their own ways to make sense of what happened regardless—better that all those different interpretations come together in meeting notes visible to everyone so that everyone can get on the same page.

There can be power in who gets to write the meeting notes and thus synthesize and determine the meaning of what occurred during the meeting.  On the flipside, it is also easy to dismiss the official notes when you think they’ve missed a lot or misunderstood a lot of what was said.

And collaborative meeting notes that everyone can see in real time allow for people to clarify and correct things during the meeting.

When people co-create the notes during the meeting—as opposed to adding their individual notes to a shared document afterwards (which, let’s be real, will likely be mainly the notes of whoever cares the most)—this gives others in the meeting the opportunity to clarify and correct things that may have been noted incorrectly or that are unclear.  Yes, sharing out meeting notes after the meeting still allows for this but sometimes people don’t, or they do raise it, but it gets lost in the email inbox swamp.  Being able to see and respond and raise the question during the meeting, while everyone is still there, means it’s more likely to be resolved and resolved more quickly than the devolving reply-all email chain.  Who needs that endless back and forth when everybody has already checked out of the meeting?

Simply put, collaborative meeting notes are more efficient and they help you facilitate more engaging and effective meetings.  Make your meeting notes collaborative by default.

Hiring in a Candidate’s Job Market

The last couple months, I have been thinking about a conversation years ago with a colleague who was hiring for a role and was trying to decide between two candidates: Candidate 1, who had basically done the job somewhere else, and Candidate 2, who was coming from a different field but had the requisite skills if not the domain-specific knowledge. 

My colleague really wanted to hire the career-switcher, feeling like this person might bring a new perspective.  On the other hand, the department (of four people) was getting ready for a key staff member to go on maternity leave and it was worthwhile to have someone who could hit the ground running and require less training.  This is a valid consideration.  My colleague also shared with me their fear that, since this role would be their first hire, they would be scrutinized and that it would be riskier to hire the candidate from a different field.  So, my colleague hired the experienced candidate.  (Which also meant the department remained…well, you could use the same general physical description for every single member of the team.)

The candidate who was hired left 18 months later for a more senior role at another organization.  At the time, my colleague was still in the department – meaning there was no room for the experienced person to move up.  And so, they had to hire all over again.

It’s an old and common story.  It is far from the first time I’ve had a hiring manager share with me this same decision-making scenario.

Why do we keep doing this?  I mean, I get why.  And true, not everyone is looking to move up.  But many people do want the ability to grow in some way—and to have that recognized.  Hiring only someone who has done the job before is an extremely shortsighted view. 

In this current Wild West of a job market, companies are offering signing bonuses for senior level positions that are typically not in fields where signing bonuses are the norm.  I wonder if these same companies are willing to sponsor H1-B visas.  (The cost of sponsoring an H1-B visa is considerably less than the last signing bonus that was mentioned to me.). I have asked one company (where a friend works) who has been in dire need of people, whether they’d be open to people who are less experienced—recent graduates or career switchers—given that they’ve been trying to fill some roles for nearly a year now.  They were not.

Meanwhile, I know and have known a number of people who have been seeking and struggling to obtain full-time positions that they could certainly do well, even if their resume is a bit winding and storied and full of a wide breadth of experience rather than some sort of neatly packaged ascent of linearity.  (I have been one of those people.) We’re talking about people who have been looking for full-time jobs for a year, two years. 

How is it serving your organization to be running your people ragged and chasing after senior level people who—at some point—are going to run out if you never develop the pipeline?  If you never take a chance on anyone?  And if you only take chances on people whom you can see yourself in?

Not to mention the costs of attrition.  Does it really save your organization that much to hire someone who can “hit the ground running” if you’re going to have to repeat the hiring process every 18-24 months?* 

Forget about the costs associated with recruiting, hiring, and onboarding.  How disruptive is it to your teams every time someone leaves? 

For the roles that are business critical, what does your pipeline look like?  Who will you need in 5 years?  And what are you doing in your current recruiting, hiring, professional development, and promotion practices to ensure you’ll be able to have the organizational capacity to take advantage of all the opportunities you’re working so hard to create?

*I did not look that up at all—just what it seems to be from my personal experiences watching and cleaning up after employee turnover.