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Sideways Looks #3: Ignore message to avert catastrophe, also Meetings

Updated: Aug 1, 2021

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Welcome to the third Sideways Looks newsletter. This week, thoughts on something which dominates so much of our lives: talking to each other, sometimes called ‘meetings’. If you want thoughts on the related topic of public speaking, there’s a couple of pieces on my website (filter by ‘communications’ on the right-hand sidebar). Also this week, a fact about Cold War negotiations and a recipe recommendation.

As always, thanks so much for subscribing and please do tell your friends. I had a lovely chat this week with someone who, unexpectedly, said they’d been enjoying this newsletter – it cheered me more than I’d have expected. But constructive criticism also very welcome. I'm not currently sure what to write about next week, so suggestions also welcome!

Have a good weekend. I’m starting it by going to an indoor pub. What luxury.


Thought for the Week: Let's Talk About Talking

Some years ago I attended a public speaking course. Amongst the attendees was a man full of stories. They were fascinating but, erm, not concise in delivery. One of the exercises involved delivering a 30 second speech, and this gentleman was the last to go. ‘Hi there’, he began. Big pause. ‘I’ve done a fair few things in my time.’ Another pause. ‘The first of these…’ He was halfway through this first thing when the chair announced ‘ten seconds left’. His eyes widened in complete shock. He had seen multiple speeches before him, he knew the exercise was about brevity, and he still had not internalised how little time 30 seconds is.

On this same course was a colleague I knew quite well, or so I thought. I knew she was quite an anxious person. But I was still stunned and saddened to hear, at the end of the course, that she was so nervous of public speaking that she avoided coming to team meetings.

I find the idea of ‘good meetings’ interesting, and complicated, for this reason: they have to cram so much individual psychology into a structured format.* There is a whole industry of meeting structures and rules: Agile Scrums, the Two-Pizza Rule, phrases like ‘nothing should be decided solely in a meeting’. I’m not going to litigate these here (though if you fancy discussing specific techniques get in touch). My overall view is, these are all tools which work well in some contexts and very badly in others - a somewhat obvious point, yet sometimes absent from ‘rules for good meetings’.

(My second, maybe less obvious, view on meeting structures is they can be adapted to surprising contexts. For instance ‘Agile’ techniques, often associated with product development, could work well for academic supervision – very regular, short contact might help avoid the getting-wrapped-in-knots so common in PhDs. But that would depend on the supervisory relationship, the project, and much else besides. Whether a technique works for a given context is more likely to be revealed by trial-and-error than by theory).

But structure can only go so far when some participants struggle to express themselves clearly concisely, and others are so nervous they are aiming to speak as little as possible. There need to be shared skills like confidence, empathy, self-awareness, thinking about wider context. Skills which won’t just appear when a manager decides to try out a new meeting structure.

It’s a common complaint that traditional education focuses too much on academic subjects, at the expense of topics such as personal finance, civic engagement, or healthy living. To that list I would add lessons on ‘talking with people,’ with meetings as a big component of that (also how to discuss empathetically, and how to disagree – other valuable personal and civic skills). I’d start that early and have it run through education. Learning in workplaces can be too intermittent, limited annual feedback and one-day courses – not enough time and support to really develop skills which are valuable to everyone’s lives.

Particularly if you spend most of the one-day course listening to that one guy’s stories.

* Another funny thing about meeting psychology, people can become suddenly conscious of how they are doing a very normal thing – talking to each other. Think of improv theatre (not improv comedy, no need to be funny, just improv-ing a scene with another person). Many people, myself included, find the idea of doing improv theatre extremely daunting. And yet ‘making up a conversation on the spot’ is something most of us do every day.

Fact about: Ignoring messages to avert catastrophe

Less a ‘fun’ fact this week, as it is about closely averted nuclear catastrophe (the Cuban Missile Crisis). But it is, in an extreme way, of a piece with this week's theme of collaboration. The below is from Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers by Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May (emphasis mine).

In the climactic hours of the crisis Kennedy received two messages from Khrushchev, the first a rambling four-part cable seeming to offer withdrawal of the missiles in return for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba; the second, more curt and formal, seeming to retract that offer.

Instead of returning to "left hook" imagery, the President and members of ExComm speculated about factionalism in the Kremlin. They visualized Khrushchev, stamping around his giant office in the Kremlin, possibly not altogether sober, dictating to a secretary, and sending off the text without showing it to anyone. They imagined other members of the Politburo bending over the second cable and tightening its wording. All that made easier their decision to ignore the second cable and simply say yes to the first.

Some of them thought later that this tactic was the source of their success, the means to bring the crisis to a close, yet they probably would not have settled on it had they not by then begun to think of Khrushchev as a person, with a history of his own.

I was once told that, when negotiating, you should focus on only replying to the things you want to hear. I’m not sure it’s the most constructive tactic in general – at the times I’ve used it, it was definitely a signal relationships were not good. But I think it’s fair to say that in this scenario relationships were definitely not good, and the tactic seems to have worked very well. And the closing point, about considering individual psychology, is obviously one I’d advocate.


The think-tank Onwards hosted a webinar on China’s Belt & Road Initiative, featuring an academic (Rana Mitter) and two of, in my view, the UK’s best current politicians (Lisa Nandy and Tom Tugendhat). It was a good example of a political discussion which addressed both specific details and broader narratives, and touched on ideological disagreements without retreating to familiar trenches. A good meeting.

Another think-tank – Bruegel – have a piece on Artificial Intelligence in the workplace, which addresses a wide range of areas and is a treasure trove of wider resources.

I’m not normally a fan of scandal stories; but this Bloomberg piece on Jeff Bezos’ divorce was an interesting (and often depressing) insight into scandal media operations, and Bezos’ surprise tactic of outdoing the tabloids at exposing his own privacy.

Finally, a recipe which I’ve been doing a lot recently. An easy, tasty, and adaptable one. Thinly slice red onion and tomato, fry in vinegar until onion is crisp; add thinly sliced chilis, spring onion, and coriander. Put on toasted bread (pitta works well), a bit of mayo or hummus helps balance the sharpness. If you’re happy to spend more than 5min cooking, beforehand salt the tomato to remove some moisture and soak the red onion in water to soften the sharpness. For a treat, also add avocado (if you make avocado toast at home you might avoid bad advice about saving for a house deposit).

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