Soft skills for natural scientists

In January 2017 I had the pleasure of conducting a 2-day workshop at the Max-Planck-Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart. We focused on

  • becoming a better listener
  • storytelling across disciplines
  • dealing with and resolving conflict
  • recognizing and improving how you work in teams

I’d like to present to you how we explored the last of these points.

  1. Team poster

In a first exercise, teams had 20 minutes to create a poster on a subject of their choice using a limited set of materials. The aim was to reflect on the roles each group member tended to take in groupwork, and how each contributed to both the process and the outcome. One interesting result was that a group consisting of members who had identified as similar MBTI types operated almost seemlessly to come up with a neatly engineered result. They didn’t begin actually creating their poster until half-way through the alotted time. Meanwhile, a second group of highly diverse types went through a lively, laughter-driven process, got hands-on almost immediately, and came up with a colorful patchwork showcasing individual contributions. Both groups were quite satisfied with their product, but the distinction between their approaches was food for thought:

  • Similar types may work together and achieve results with little friction, but they will not have the opportunity to gain an understanding for the thoughts and work processes of those unlike them.
  • Diverse types may experience a great deal of friction (to the point of experiencing the process as ‘a waste of time’), and the group will be slowed down by the attempt to include all participants, but they will, on reflection, acquire insights to enable improved collaboration on later projects. For research suggests that “It’s group conflict that actually makes a team function with more of the razor’s edge it needs to be innovative.”

2. Team meeting

In a second exercise, teams convened to hold a meeting to solve an important issue of their choice. Again the format was highly stylized, using Edward de Bono’s Six Hats approach in a precisely timed game format. At the end, the groups presented their solutions. Key lessons from the exercise were:

  • Using a strict format creatively limiting talking time heightens focus and improves results. It avoids members blocking each other competitively by trying to outdo each other.
  • A key to useful outcomes is  to allow thoughts to blossom first before finding weaknesses in them, and then to go on to seek solutions to those weaknesses, rather than shooting them down in the bud.

Such reflective exercises are great at inviting colleagues to discuss what they need and don’t need from each other, and allows them to grow as a team.

Though the team poster exercise made for better pictures (see below), the team meeting exercise won greater praise.

A warm thank you to the participants from the Max-Planck-Institute for Intelligent Systems for permitting me to show you these photos.

Lessons learned

First, a warm thank you to Wera Schmidt for thinking through my concept with me and suggesting the poster exercise. And a heartfelt thank you to my coaching colleague Wolf Wagner, who went through the feedback and assessed it for me. Overall, the feedback was quite positive. What participants liked most was the day 1 opportunity to practice listening and speaking skills. They were keen to explore conflict resolution in the simulations they were invited to act out. However, some found it quite difficult to imagine what the other side might argue in concrete terms, and in general would have prefered greater guidance in a smaller number of role plays.  This suggests to me that more focused and generative group coaching might be called for. Overall, a reprise in a similar soft skills workshop will include:

  1. fewer items
  2. a greater focus on issues specific to each participant’s work/life reality
  3. more time for guided reflection after each exercise
  4. a crystal-clear summary of the intended lesson to be learned.

Debate and discussion

I enjoyed yesterday’s communication skills class with the Master of Public Management class at the University of Potsdam. We did discussion and debate, and I used a few resources I can recommend:

communication triangle anne hodgson

After showing the students my communication triangle above (connect at the human, the community, and the (competitive, self-)marketing levels), I highlighted the skill of building and maintaining rapport. I used Bob Dignen’s lovely “Business with Bob” video, “Building Rapport”, where he explains mirroring and positive modelling. You’ll find it and the rest of his video series on the Business Spotlight site. (Link to the intro page to that series. Link to the video itself.)

how to disagree

Then I showed them Paul Graham’s great “pyramid of disagreement”, from the lowest, and least effective, ways (name-calling, ad hominem attacks) to those that promise most in every respect (refutation, and especially refuting the key argument). That article is well worth reading (Paul Graham, How to Disagree, March 2008).

Then we got down to business. I started with an activity from a great book I’m using a lot at the moment, by Jenny Guse, Communicative Activities for EAP (Klett/Cambridge University Press 2011, with CD-ROM, e.g. here). The activity is Discussion Trios, so: three to a group, they get a problem card, and have 10 minutes to come up with as many factors that contribute to this problem as they can. This gets them talking and practicing the language of coordination (and, as well, also, another one…). I took Jenny Guse’s material for this, namely a range of 10 environmental issues. Then we did Trios reloaded, where the same teams had to think of a new problem themselves (social, economic, cultural,…) and do the same thing again. They came up with issues like overpopulation, social inequality, corruption, but also having too many term papers to write in too short a time, and eating too much. Then they were ready to do the first extended task. I adapted an activity in Jenny Guse’s book, where she asks students to design a computer game for the elderly, and asks students to discuss and come to an agreement on the passions, values and experience of the elderly. This is to practice the language of agreement and disagreement. I preferred to have them work “closer to home”, and told them that they were to design a computer game for young adults like themselves to educate them to a pressing problem of our day and age. They were to determine the passions, values and interests of their target group that this game would appeal to. I put them in four groups of 5-6 each, and they started out by deciding on the problem, then outlining the values and passions, which each team presented, and they then went back into their groups to develop the game itself. These four games were then presented by a duo from each team:

  • A stress-reduction game: The player moves through various environments where she makes healthy, fun, vitalizing choices to move from 100% to 0% stress.
  • An urban life game: The player moves through urban adventures, where he has to “do the right thing” and is awarded citizenship and other bonus points and can become mayor or similar.
  • An end terrorism game, where the player has to put together a team to end terrorism (a lawyer, a general…). Each profile has a different chance of success, and this is predefined, so depending on whether the player employs the members of the team the way the designers have determined them to be successful, the mission will succeed.
  • An end organized crime game, in which players gain the necessary resources, which they then use as they try to infiltrate the criminal networks in missions, distracting and entertaining them to get inside.

After this entertaining activity, the students went on to “take a stand”. I showed them a cartoom that’s been making the rounds (“Dad, I’m considering a career in organized crime.” “Government or private sector?”) and asked them “Which sector is more corrupt?” The more outspoken in the class stood and spoke, and responded to each other with counter-arguments. They were great, and this I filmed, but unfortunately at over 13 minutes, the film is too long too share. (I have to break the film down to upload to our private channel, but this always takes time.) In a second round, everyone paired up, and one player expressed a standpoint, to which the other responded by agreeing with certain parts of the argument and disagreeing with others. This gave the less outspoken ones a chance to speak.

We didn’t get around to the big two team debate I had set up to end things, based on two groups, each reading only one side of an argument, and then engaging in debate, as the above activities took up the full three hours.

One thing that is rarely successful in these types of lessons is to get students to actually use functional language. I did hand out respective phrase bits and modeled them, but I didn’t actually give positive feedback when I heard them being used. The most effective feedback, I think, is when they are grasping for words and then get, from their peers or from me, the correct phrase (Comprehensible Output). I heard lots of that going on. But in my experience, as I say, it’s rarely the language usually defined as functional, it’s usually the words that carry more content. These students are using English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), at differeing levels of fluency, and they are collaborating towards an outcome, very successfully. I don’t think it’s wrong to point out functional language, it may ring a bell with some of them and come in handy, but I don’t believe in pushing it. I think it’s far more essential to internalize the principles of good communication, and that’s why a bit of a presentation and discussion of those, followed by loads of communicative activities to practice and get routine, is my favored approach. What I need to improve next time I do this sort of thing is to make sure there is a feedback slot at the end to revisit those principles.

Here is my presentation as a pdf. If you have done or do anything similar in classes, I’d love to hear from you!

MPM Discuss and debate

The Moth Ball

The Moth Ball (video report NYT) is an annual benefit evening for the Moth, a NY-and-LA-based organization dedicated to the art of live storytelling. Several times a month there is an event in some bar, café, community center, and people from all walks of life are invited to tell a true story. The Moth Ball, raising money for the events, honored Salmon Rushdie and featured slam storytelling. Storytelling is much better than small-talk (ugh!), says Jonathan Adler. Storytelling is mind-expanding rather than soul-destroying. On the Moth website you can listen to stories.