Conversations with Rosa Carrillo: The power of deep listening (part 1)

March 10, 2021



This is the first in a two part series of conversations between Rosa Carrillo and Nippin Anand. During their interaction, Nippin and Rosa experience the power of deep listening – an important but often neglected aspect of psychological safety.

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[00:00:00] Nippin Anand: Welcome to another episode of Embracing Differences with me Nippin Anand. This podcast series is meant to bring you different perspectives and concepts in safety. The idea really is to create space for thinking and reflection, not to reinforce any grand theories or our prior knowledge on a subject. The aim is to learn and grow, not to remain stagnant. And of course, as I keep saying there is no reason for you to believe me or any so-called expert but keep an open mind and be prepared to challenge your beliefs if you truly want to learn more than what you knew yesterday.

[00:00:45] Rosa Carillo: Well, I see you got your world map all set.

[00:00:50] Nippin Anand: I used to study sociology at the University and we had a professor his name was Peter Fairbrother from Australia. I saw a map right outside his office which was upside down. I used to be very curious to ask him why do you see the world this way? He said “There is no such thing like upside down” he corrected me on that. It’s just a perspective and interestingly, Rosa, you go on the Internet to purchase a map like this and everywhere it says the world upside down and I wonder why. He was right. So, it kind of resonates. How are you?

[00:01:32] Rosa Carillo: Good! We keep forgetting we live in a very large universe where someone’s upside down is their right side up.

[00:01:41] Nippin Anand: I don’t know what your views are, but I have been reading about philosophy for some years now one thing that interests me is that how we went from enlightenment, towards reasoning, towards postmodernism where we rejected the idea of, we’re kind of underplayed the idea of reasoning and we become so engrossed in the idea that everyone has their own reasons. So, reality can never be understood, as Shakespeare said, “Beauty lies in the eyes of beholder”, so everyone has their own truth everyone has their own perspectives.

I don’t know how progressive we can be on society from that if you look at it from that perspective. Everyone has their own views and how do we move forward then?

[00:02:21] Rosa Carillo: Yeah, it’s a different form of logic which has been brought forward from complexity, right? So, we just have to come to terms with that, but we’re reasoning in a different way I think.

[00:02:40] Nippin Anand: I don’t know, what are your views on this whole idea of complexity? I have not come to grips with it, honestly. I have no idea what it is.

[00:02:48] Rosa Carillo: Well yeah, it is a difficult topic. I remember my first book, I read Ralph Stacey. It took me like days to read one chapter. I kept reading it over and over again. I was like, I have to understand this. I was like driven to understand it and it’s interesting that you ask that because that’s how I got to really crystallize my ideas about relationship because Ralph Stacey kept talking about relationship psychology so that organizations operate because power really runs the organization, so your relationship to the person in power or the group in power determines what you’re able to do or not do in in in the short run, of course.

[00:03:53] You always have the choice to leave the organization, right? But not everybody feels that way or sees that because they worry about making their living or perhaps their personality just doesn’t allow them to jump off into the unknown. But anyways so Ralph Stacey really got into how we’re not really as independent as we think we are because we are always influenced.

[00:04:19] Even when we’re thinking by ourselves in our office, there are thoughts that comes from other sources – some book we read or a mentor or a conversation we just had. So, all of those things are always there impacting our line of reasoning and we choose them according to those that we like and leave aside those things that we don’t agree with, that’s called unconscious bias.

[00:04:49] So, the relationship factor arose from two things one is my own experience. Having been raised in my early years in Mexico – very much a collective culture and then moving to United States. The first 10 years in Mexico so those are my formative years and when I moved here it was very very difficult to absorb the individualism that was in the US culture. I mean it’s extremely well according to Hofstede it’s the most extreme in the United States. We have the worst problems with like racism and you know the clashes which everybody has been watching on the news because we have the group that says no, we’re collective, we need to take care of each other and another group saying absolutely not! Every time you help somebody, you’re ruining their life, you’re ruining their chances of making on their own by their own bootstraps forgetting of course that they didn’t make it by their own bootstraps either but that’s forgotten.

[00:05:58] My growing up and collectivism, I was much more sensitive to the importance of relationships growing up in a highly racist society made me hyper aware of who I could and could not trust, who I had to please etc. I have to always be adapting and changing to the power around me. So, I brought all of that into the workplace. But it took many years for that to really crystallize because I was socialized so deeply the first time, I read about how all of the lands were taking from the Cherokee Indian nation in the trek that they did across the country and how so many of them died I couldn’t digest it. I just didn’t know what to do with the information.

[00:06:56] My professor said what happened you didn’t reach any conclusions. I just couldn’t because it was so shocking to me that I couldn’t take it to the next step. So here I am 70 years old published my first book at 69 because of all those years of suppression and getting released from all of the other the ways of thinking that have that have developed me and I hope that my book helps some people arrive there more quickly.

The feedback I’ve been getting I think people are saying, “Aha maybe this applies to me”.

[00:07:48] Nippin Anand: I’m sensing a bit of Paulo Freire here as you’re talking, ‘The pedagogy of the oppressed’

[00:07:54] Rosa Carillo: Very much! I have lived it. My first job was as a teacher. I graduated with a teaching credential started a Master’s program in education and I went into kindergarten thinking that I was going to be in control because the only thing they don’t teach you in your curriculum is how to work with children. Does that sound familiar? They teach you how children learn and the best way to present the information. But you go into the classroom and especially have 30 five year olds running around. Oh my gosh! What did I sign up for? So that process of how to work with them and help them learn with. And you brought up a punch because it was a very low-income neighborhood who were Spanish speaking and I was bilingual so spoken English and Spanish through them. In my class, my five year olds were learning to read other five year olds were not learning to read, I had this expectation that “You can do this!” and they did.

[00:09:20] Nippin Anand: Fascinating! As you’re speaking, I can mirror some of those experiences coming from India and being brought up in a close to very poor family and experiencing an education system which was very technocratic in nature and you know there’s not much to argue when it comes to 2 + 2 it has to be a 4. Being brought up in a system like that. But also coming from a very religious dogmatic kind of beliefs in the family with mother is very religious person. You’re not supposed to question so many do’s and don’ts, and to meet the love of my life and then to come to the UK and then to start with a Masters in economics which was kind of a repeat of put my previous education but was very technocratic, being offered to do a PhD in social Sciences.

[00:10:16] I had absolutely no idea until the age of 29 what people talk about reflection and thinking. I had no idea what that really means. So, my professor asked me to write an essay and I went and read something like 120 papers on how to write an essay. I learned some of his stuff also and I wrote in the essay exactly. I would struggle to come up with my own vocabulary with my own words because there was no reflection at all. It was just absorbing and cramming. In one sense this is repeating what you have just read that there is absolutely no reflection at all in my work. One point he called me to his office said, “It’s impossible to do a PhD in this way, you will just kill yourself if you don’t stay away from books at all. You have done a lot of reading, there’s a lot of hard work there but I see no original thinking. What you’re doing is just repeating what you’re reading and, in some places, it becomes so visible it looks like you’re plagiarizing things.” So that was interesting and then you know, I just I closed the books because of my idea was to read something and quickly start to write an assignment. I closed the books and went out for a walk and just struggling to come up with one paragraph that was more from an expression from inside.

[00:11:42] It took me a long time to come up with one sentence. I would struggle the same I would go back and said I don’t know how to write. I have no courage to even start writing something because I don’t know where to draw the inspiration from. He told me this, “Then why don’t you do something when you start writing an article or an essay, why don’t we say something like -this essay is about…, and that gives you a way forward to write one sentence”.

[00:12:10] Honestly it really shocked and surprised that there was so much creativity sitting inside and just needed to be tapped and I can tell you that if from that Masters in economics I went to a job and then do what I was already doing I would have gained nothing from that higher further education. The PhD in social sciences and anthropology, and everything that followed was a complete change in me as a person. I started to become so critical about everything, so argumentative, it was fun in I mean it is still full. I totally get, I mean I hope I do, when you say that you come from one form of life and enter into a completely different one. Sometimes we don’t realize that it is a very unique gift that we bring to ourselves and others.

[00:13:08] Rosa Carillo: It’s an understanding which at first like you and I, wasn’t even aware that I had this inside of me right? That I was you’re constantly adjusting and adapting in a way that certain people have had the privilege of not having to adapt and so the way that you have survived you have become successful is something that you can actually teach and that’s a process, it’s not a formula. So that’s what I’m trying to do with safety professionals, I’m saying OK guys obviously rules and policies aren’t going to cut it so are you willing to learn about the social sciences? Are you willing to learn about social systems because it’s the hard lesson that I had to learn when I went into the classroom it’s no different?

[00:13:58] I didn’t know how to work with children. Most of them don’t know how to work with people! Young graduates with a science background felt all the sudden they go the way you’re supposed to do it and they get told where to go you know. Hey leave me alone they have no idea what set them up for a very unhappy experience in the workplace. Whereas if you had learned your social skills in kindergarten which is where you learn everything you need to know and not make it a second-class subject. Right now, that technical is everything. STEM everything! STEM STEM STEM!

[00:14:51] But have you noticed nothing that a lot of articles are coming out that yeah, it’s great to have stem skills? But things we’re really looking for is analytic thinking, communication skills, a completely different set of skills in a mindset.

So, you went and got your PhD and all the sudden you have this tremendous experience. Why didn’t you just quit? Why didn’t you say, “Oh I’m going to go to a different PhD where I don’t have to do other soul searching. Why didn’t you just change?

[00:15:30] Nippin Anand: Well, I came very close to it.

[00:15:34] Rosa Carillo: Yes, it would be a very painful experience to be told you sound like you’re plagiarizing I mean that would really get to me.

[00:15:42] Nippin Anand: I remember it was the 7th or 8th month of the program that I was enrolled into. So, it was a four years PhD program and I was in the ninth month and I gave a call to my professor in economics where I studied my master just before entering into the PhD program and I said is there any opportunity that I could turn it into an economics PhD research. And he said I think the party that funded you for the PhD has made it very clear that they’re looking to create a network of social scientists around the world so there’s not much I can do to help you there. I was absolutely frustrated. My wife, she comes from an engineering background and she would sit mid me in the evening and go through essays in critical realism to help me understand that. I had no clue what I’m reading. Absolutely none!

[00:16:37] The transformation happened when I started to go in the field and started to talk to people and I remember the first time I came back was with an awful lot of assumptions about everything and the same professors says to me says that it seems like you already have conclusions to everything then there is no point doing the PhD. So, it was one shock after another until I started to understand it took me long enough. I don’t think I still understand it but it took me a long time to understand that the merit, the value really lies in seeking nuances in everything and I was so far away from those nuances because all my life, my education was around deterministic kind of thinking.

[00:17:29] Technical education is not designed that way to unpack those assumptions and seeking meaning in things and then being constructive and creative. It’s like your technocratic kind of knowledge that you don’t seek empirical evidence to prove anything. It’s already said and you just have to now follow the structure and then improve it.

[00:17:54] Rosa Carillo: Yeah, and that is their reaction too. The Middle Ages and all the emphasis on spiritualism and say OK we’re going to just clarify everything once and for all we’re going to see evidence-based truth but the evidence-based truth became based on everything that is physical and concrete. We have so many aspects like the importance of emotions in decision making. I remember when I first read that from Damasio*and I was thinking, “Wow! That makes a lot of sense!” if you remove the emotional component from decision making no decision get made and yet pounded into you that don’t let emotions influence you, you have to make an objective analysis and objective conclusion.

[00:18:37] But it doesn’t work that way and it certainly doesn’t work in safety when we’re doing accident investigations or any type of critical thinking because safety is a people business. It’s about working with the whole person not just the brainy or I should say the brain or the mind. You are working with a brain, but not just the logical part of the brain.

[00:19:04] Nippin Anand: But in that sense, Rosa, I am curious to hear, what do you make of this idea of safety? What does it actually mean?

[00:19:13] Rosa Carillo: Well, it’s a function, it’s a department because we said oh people are getting killed so let’s make a group of people responsible for guiding and shepherding that aspect of work just like we have engineers in charge of design. So, safety people however because safety has been, it’s not even though we say safety first and say it is a priority it isn’t really because the real priority is profit and reputation. Money runs everything. So, safety is caught in a conundrum because they have all of this responsibility but none of the power to make it happen. So, there’s so much confusion. I see it all everywhere about what it means? what safety means? What is the safety professional? Who is qualified? Most of the people working in safety don’t even have a degree. They were just chosen that, “Oh you look like a good person come on up in and be in charge of safety”. So, it’s a good question, Nippin and I think it’s because as a society we are very unclear on safety is a value we haven’t really made that decision the safety of the people is more important than the profit.

[00:20:44] Nippin Anand: How do you approach this, Rosa? In your work, the whole idea, notion of safety, sort of analytical framework do you come up in?

[00:20:55] Rosa Carrillo: Well, I what I’m focused on now is the leadership development. Helping the leader get in touch with their own emotions and awareness, becoming more socially aware, teaching the importance of listening through experiential exercises. As we keep saying conversations are very important but it’s not a conversation unless you’re really listening, unless you the person that you’re talking with where you trust them. So that’s why I wrote that “True communication only happens through conversation”.

[00:21:41] So, you and I have even though we don’t know each other very well we have established a relationship to the degree where we can have this conversation. But if you just called me one day and started asking me these questions without any sense making to it. Some people think oh I hired this person and this person works for me so I have a relationship with them, basically they owe me work. So, you owe me the work well done! Very hard to get people to understand that the money is important specially you know when people are living at the edge of existence which is why people work for almost nothing when they’re on the verge of starving but for people like us, money is not and it’s true for many more people than we think.

[00:22:48] I have worked with the employees at the plant level that are being taught about different safety programs or quality or empowered work groups and their level for need of creativity and autonomy is just as high as money. They only have a high school diploma so they didn’t have an opportunity to develop it but that potential is still in there and so you go in there and we unleash it, we teach people analytical skills. I teach about social skills and treating each other out of influence and they are then amazing things how many plant managers I’ve talked to the heat as well I tried to get that done for months, they got it done in a week. Wow! You know we needed to save $50,000 on our budget, they saved 500,000 but telling people that story doesn’t always convince them. This is the approach they should take.

[00:24:03] I’m trying to I mean other than inmate readiness. I don’t how you could move somebody forcibly from the logical profit view over to the people center will be view because you’re gonna get actually get more profit from that but I mean going back to the idea of conversations, talk about conversations in such a powerful way to create that trust between people.

[00:24:23] Nippin Anand: If I understood it right, the curiosity I have Rosa is that why is it so difficult to create conversations? Something as simple. What makes it so difficult to have a good conversation in an organization in or in any social setting for example?

[00:24:41] Rosa Carrillo: This is one of your favorite topics – the lack of psychological safety. It’s kind of a buzzword now but basically this has been talked about in social sciences for decades that one of the biggest risks you can take is social interaction. Of course, when you’re talking upwards power, you have to be super careful about what you’re saying because you could lose credibility, you could lose the relationship, your position and then you’re talking to your peers the same thing because you have to. They have seen as competent and so you can see how now I can’t ask that question because I feel like I should already know so I can’t ask. Well, what would he really mean by that and think about our conversation here? Tell me more about that. What may be your definition is different from mine but I won’t know unless I ask you about it but a conversation is really caring about what the other person is saying. If that component is missing, then it cannot happen. There has to be that degree of psychological safety with something that by saying something could conceivably lower your status. Have you ever had an experience like that where you’ve had to be very guarded?

[00:26:19] Nippin Anand: All my life, or at least my childhood. Maybe someday I will talk to you about how we were raised as children. More than me, my brother has been a victim of this thing. I think you touched on something really important. What do you think is the idea of psychological safety?

[00:26:42] I had a very different topic in mind but what a conversation it turned out to be, and that is precisely the beauty of a conversation. It goes where it goes but to me the important thing was the quality of the conversation. We often talk about psychological safety but we miss an important point. There is no psychological safety without deep listening, without someone being genuinely present in the moment and being interested in what you say and Rosa created that space so naturally. Would you believe it was only my second time speaking with Rosa but, my goodness, it never felt that way. If you are a leader there is something powerful to take away from this episode and that is understanding the power of deep listening. If you really want to be understood, make sure you spend time understanding the point of view of others first. More on this when we meet again next week to discuss psychological safety in more detail.

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