# 60: Flippant Teaching
Story behind the Passage
We all talk but talking in public makes a difference. And by “public” I do not just mean big audiences. I also mean group meetings with only a handful of people. If you personally believe that you are not a good speaker, this will always somewhat hold you back. In my case, it was just like that. People tend to think that I am outspoken but that is because for a long time, I tried to cover my insecurity by being rather loud. Today, I would think that my outspoken nature is rather natural. I say what I think not because I want to provoke but because I have learned that exactly these short impulses make a difference.
I remember that my German teacher (yes, Germans also have to take German in school, just like Americans have to take English — i.e., literature and history) called this “flippant” (German “flapsig”). I just checked the German Duden and it describes flippant to mean “showing bad, unpolished manners” (“flippig”). Somehow, I kind of identify with this. Manners are dictated by society or certain communities and I have always had this rebellious nature that I tend to question whatever the majority says one should do (that does not mean that I am not respectful — there is a huge difference). In business, this can be an obstacle sometimes. As a dear friend and mentor from the consulting world once told me when I suggested to do something in an usual way again.
“You know what? There is a reason why almost 100% of the businesses do it THIS way — because it works! You do not always have to do things differently.”
Well, I kind of got the point but it is somehow against my nature. Every big success I celebrated, I did my way. Let’s say I applied for some scholarship or grant. You find all these manuals that tell you how to do it — I always did it differently. And it worked in 80% of the cases. But the important point is that I also always stick to the rules. That is important. It is like taking an exam in school or university. You need to read the question carefully and respond to it in the way that the question asks you to. But within this sometimes tight-knit corset, it is up to you how to design your content. And that is where you can win bonus points by violating the mainstream way of thinking and writing or doing things. People remember if there is some black sheep sticking out of the paper pile.
I started thinking about this topic because someone told me in a phone call today about a situation in which he observed my behavior about a year ago when I visited his company. And now that he mentioned the incident, I remember that I dropped a very short und seemingly unimportant comment about the furniture there or rather the design of the office. I do remember that I had paused for a tiny moment before saying it. And the next thing I remember is that a colleague of him who was standing next to me was really irritated and he himself, the CEO, was too.
I love these moments of confusion or rather of irritation. Again, I am not running around to trigger these moments because it is part of some daily agenda. That is complete bullshit. I know, there are people like that who simply like to provoke without any intention to create value with their remarks (it is one of the negative side effects of a humanities socialization in German academia; not of the humanities in general). When I do something like that, I am driven by my permanent urge to optimize things. I would say, this is the “Steve Jobs syndrome” and I am just as skilled in pissing people off with my unpolished way of expressing what I see as he was — at least based on what the public knows about him. What I mean is: I am just not very good at packaging the message in a way that is easy to swallow for others.
Well, when I think of this statement, however, it is not entirely true. I would not use the present tense anymore. In fact, I do think a lot about phrasing things in a way that people internalize them. The thing is: I really scan the people I am talking to before opening my mouth. And if I come to the conclusion that someone in a certain position or with a certain level of responsibility should be able to swallow some remark in order to do something with it, then I do not bite my tongue. What for?
I know, this is a rhetorical question. Of course, I know exactly why people shut up. It happened to me all the time when I worked in business. I observed, I expressed what I saw, and then my boss got pissed off. And I had no idea what I had done. I always tried to make things better and the only way you can do this is by saying what you see and making suggestions how to make it better. Everybody talks about this nowadays (open communication, no hierarchies, bla, bla…) but my experience was always that people, especially in corporations, simply did not want to see it. Only later did I learn that they simply had not understood what I was telling them. So, this is when I got deeper and deeper into communication. But the content of the message, your observation, remains the same.
The worst incident I once experienced was when I told my boss in consulting that what we were offering to clients had practically 0 brain in it and hardly any real value in the long term. I spent days working on researching all the connections behind my argument and supporting data. Then I presented it to the two partners. And the next day my boss took me aside and told me that he was not sure if he could send me to a client after what he had seen the day before. This told me that he had no trust in me and my ability to differentiate who I was talking to in which way.
When I talk to my boss, I assume that we are on a team and that he wants to learn everything that might make the organization better. And that starts by identifying errors or things that need improvement. When I talk to a client, I do the same thing but with the perspective in mind that I am representing my company to help him — at least when I am employed. That is a huge difference. But my boss obviously doubted that I could tell the difference.
I ended up doing the job at the client for a few days and it worked well, they were happy and the company still has that client today, I think. But that incident simply shattered my trust in my employer. If I had a boss who did not want to see what was going on or he simply did not get it — this was not my place. I did not have the willingness to change who I am and what I see because exactly what I see creates value. There are enough people do not see that much in such a short period of time. This is what I know today. Back then, I simply did not have the nerve to deal with this anymore. I quit a few weeks later and he was completely devastated because he had not expected that to happen.
Well, when I talk about “walking the talk” — that is what I do.
And this is just one example. I have been through many moments like these. What always broke me in a way was that what I said was usually correct. I do not mean “correct” in the sense of being the “Ms. Knows It All.” No. But what usually happened was that other colleagues later approached me and assured me that what I was seeing confirmed their own insights by 100%. They simply never opened their mouths. In other cases, the respective people that I had once pissed off with my comments came back to me years later admitting that the mistake I had seen a long time ago actually turned out to be a major problem. They simply had not seen it back then. And they did not want to listen.
Again, I am not saying that I have a big crystal ball and can tell the future. This is not about me. This is what especially people in the humanities are good for. They are CRITICAL THINKERS — for Pete’s sake! This is what this bullshit word actually means in PRACTICE, not on some nice job ad for the purpose of employer branding. And critical thinking needs to go along with critical TALKING. You have to open your mouth to convey the message. Sure, you can be a little more touchy and sensitive than I was back then. But my learning now after having gone through all the coaching and psycho-cosmetics phases of communication is that the value is in the content itself — all the nice packaging is a waste of time and money (at least internally). You just have to make sure that the other person really UNDERSTANDS that what you are saying is meant to help him/her.
I remember what the authors in The Trillion Dollar Coach say about the clear language of Bill Campbell in that respect who always managed to make sure that the executives he was coaching knew that he loved them which is exactly why he told them what he was seeing (see my post about the book from a few weeks ago). Here are his favorites:
As an outsider in any organization, I have the huge privilege of saying exactly the things that many people inside the organization are seeing but simply never ever dare to mention. And yes, my language is very similar to Bill Campbell’s, so, I am not saying that everyone needs to use that kind of language, even though I find it very efficient. Still, the important part is the speaking up issue. If I stayed quiet as well, I would not create any value, no matter how smart or informed my other input on matter x, y, z might be. From my own experience in corporations, especially large ones, I know one thing for sure: people are afraid, all the time. They are afraid of making a mistake, they are afraid of insulting their boss, they are afraid of being the next one who is denied the promotion to the next salary level. And fear usually translates into silence. If there is one thing I demonstrate by speaking up it is:
How to break the silence.
What does all this have to do with today’s passage? Like many people nowadays, I like TED talks. I think, I started watching them before they became really prominent in Germany. Right now, I am not even that much into them. Actually, my approach to TED talks is always the same. I read a book by someone and if I am then interested in finding out who the author is, I search for TED talks. Usually, the talks are just a very condensed, incomplete, and commercialized version of the real book content. But that is o.k. I only watch for learning more about the person behind the book.
The big advantage of watching TED talks is, of course, that you acquire storytelling knowledge. That is also why I ended up buying Gallo’s book Talk Like TED. Today’s passage, however, is not about storytelling explicitly. It is related to what I have described above: If you speak your mind in order to convey important information to others, that naturally means that you allow them to learn. The problem is: Not everybody wants to learn all the time — especially about things that make him/her feel upset, frustrated, or simply confused. That is why the passage jumped at me today when I grabbed the TED book from my shelf.
“Everything I’m going to present to you today was not in my textbooks when I went to school.” Everybody is talking about learning these days but the point is: I think people are just slowly discovering what learning actually means; that learning is something that you actively have to DO throughout your entire life and career. Otherwise, it will cost you something — a promotion, a healthy life, a responsible role, whatever… Most of the time ignorance is going to cost you money. But the nice thing about this is that your ignorance will also prevent you from realizing the full harm you have done to yourself. As some wise man once said:
“Stupid is as stupid does.” — Forrest Gump
What I am trying to get at is simply this: If we are always willing to learn, people with such a “flippant” communication style like myself cannot piss off anybody. To the contrary, people will increasingly appreciate it if you put a flashlight on their blind spots. It helps to see what you cannot see yourself. But that, I have to underline this again, means that you really want to learn something new all the time and in any situation.
The reason why learning has this important status today is related to what Gallo describes here with a quote by Robert Ballard: Most of the things that you need to know today to get ahead with whatever you are doing where not in your textbooks. In fact, who knows if there will always be textbooks in the future? For sure, however, the half-value period of knowledge is shrinking. So, what you learned in school becomes outdated really quickly. And I mostly mean “facts,” of course, “data” about empirical phenomena. Theories and philosophies hardly ever change unless they were dead wrong in the first place.
I love the present era so much because I feel that all these buzzwords like digital transformation and lifelong learning are really gaining meaning for people and companies. They are not just empty bullshit lingo anymore. People start noticing that they are disadvantaged if they do not keep up with learning. Just take new media stuff. Some of these virologists that jump from talk show to talk show never touched Twitter before the pandemic. Now they can easily have hundred thousands of followers and they can rightly claim: “I understand Twitter now and I am really amazed by the impact.”
Statements like these show that even people who supposedly have achieved much and learned a lot in the past are not only able but willing to learn all the time. And the crucial thing is: They learn about stuff they somehow rejected in the past. So, this gives me hope that there is more willingness to learn “Something New” than there is neglect.
If that automatically means that learning involves teaching in the future, as the chapter title in the book suggests, remains to be seen. As you can imagine, nothing will stop me from continuing my flippant way of making people learn. They will only do so if they want to. And the others will simply kick me out. That is o.k. Every door leads to some exciting new place that never appeared “in my textbooks” — and these are the exciting places I love learning about.
1) What is your favorite TED talk? Why?
2) Do you ever say things to your boss that other people consider inappropriate? When was the last time you tried it?
3) Have you watched Forrest Gump?