This is a transcript of episode 144 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.
We are joined by the wise and thoughtful Misha Glouberman, who organises Internet cocktail parties and better, more human-friendly meetings for organisations and teams—and the two turn out to have a lot in common.
Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey and Misha.
Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel, Hi Misha.
Jeffrey: So Misha, thank you for joining us on the podcast. We’ll start with how I first got to know you, which is as the guy who does cocktail parties on the Internet. How did this come about?
Misha: My work since before the lockdown has been helping people form meaningful or interesting connections in different contexts, from classes to parties, different kinds of places like that. When the lockdown happened I wondered, ‘what does the world need from me?’ And I saw people really feeling isolated. People don’t seem very satisfied with how all these video conferencing tools are helping them connect. I thought I could help with that, so I started working on a bunch of experiments to help people form interesting, meaningful connections in that medium. I found, as I think many people have, that you can do that if you’re thoughtful about it. Then I had a birthday party that you were at.
Jeffrey: That’s right. It was a lot of fun, and you actually went and wrote up how you did it. You made the guide to how to do cocktail parties on the Internet. People spend all this time on Zoom and it’s terrible. Everyone knows that you have this lack of connection. Now that we’re virtual, how do you achieve connection amongst people?
Misha: I frequently encounter people being like thing X is awful and that breaks my heart. It’s that bad implementations or uses of thing X are terrible and awful. Zoom was one of those things. People just aren’t using this tool right. In some cases people think, ‘we’re going to have a drinks party on Zoom.’ And what that would mean is everybody would bring a drink and just be in this one Zoom meeting with 30 people. That’s not how you do a party. Come to our party, here’s the rules: all 30 of us are going to stand in a circle and take turns talking?
Squirrel: And we’re all going to look at each other throughout the entire party.
Misha: That’s a terrible way to run a party. In parties people get into small groups, and move between groups, and reconnect with old friends if they know people, and introduce people to each other, and find people who share their interests. They do all of that. Zoom has these breakout rooms, so I knew there was probably a way we could simulate that. So I got to work on designing it. Because I’m a facilitator, I’m really interested in how to structure this so it’s not just a regular cocktail party, it’s what a cocktail party would be like with a really, really good facilitator.
Jeffrey: That’s exactly what a cocktail party needs.
Squirrel: On Zoom, that is what it needs.
Misha: During the pandemic and its move to virtual worlds if we’re doing it right we’re also fixing what was broken about things before. I do a bunch of work with conferences, for instance. In your online conference, it’s really important to engineer how people meet each other. But that’s also true in your offline conference! And that wasn’t happening before. My hope is these lessons will stick through the transition back to offline conferences. So I really strove to do that on Zoom. I won’t get into all the details, but a big part was to figure out a hack to let people move between these little breakout rooms. Zoom has added that feature just recently. But the real trick was having people create a Google document where they could describe what interests they had so people could find others who share their interests really quickly and get into conversations with them. That and to let them move between lots and lots of small breakout rooms, so that they’re in groups of two to four by default, which is the normal size group at a party. Then you can actually see who’s in the rooms and move between them and stuff like that. So at that party, very quickly people were talking about things that were interesting to them, meeting other people who shared their unique interests, reconnecting with people from the past, moving around between groups, and having experiences that were very much like the kinds you might have at a party.
Jeffrey: It’s great that you figured out a way to really deliver something that the world needed, at a time where people were just entering lockdown.
Misha: The birthday party was early to mid April.
Jeffrey: So pretty early in the lockdown world. And here we are months later, you’ve continued to explore the world of online communities and connections. Now if someone says, ‘I want to have a group gathering. I want to make a good connection there,’ where do you send people?
Misha: Check out my article How to Have a Cocktail Party on Zoom, and probably, depending on how good you are with technology and facilitation like that, you can do this yourself. I know a lot of people have implemented that article and use the stuff in that article. So that’s if you’re the kind of person who thinks a party can just run itself without a facilitator.
Jeffrey: One of those crazy people.
Misha: I don’t know what kind of weirdo you are, but there’s good new tools that let people recreate those kinds of spaces that weren’t around in the early days of the lockdown. There’s Spatial Chat, and Kumo Space, and Rally, there’s a whole bunch of them that let people move between groups. The one that I’ve seen people use the most, called gather.town, is very sweet and lovely and interesting. It’s actually like a little eight bit video game and you can move around. When you get close to people a little video of you pops up. When you’re far, the video’s sort of faded out, and as you get closer, it fades back in. Similarly with the sounds, you get to recreate some of the reality of moving up to people in a party, and you can overhear a conversation that’s not near you. You can put all these features in it if you or your friends are so inclined, and one of the interesting features that I didn’t like at first is that as you get closer to a conversation you can hear it more. So when you’re in a conversation, you kind of hear the background of conversations around you. At first I thought it’s actually annoying, like in real life. But it turns out that constraint is really helpful because it encourages you to move away, which is a really hard thing to engineer for in social spaces. If you want mingling, part of that is letting people find the people they want to talk to. But part is also making it possible for people to move away so they go talk to other new people. It’s very, very hard to create that even in real world spaces, and the fact that when people are standing too close to each other they can’t hear each other very well forces people to move away, which is very cool. That’s my hot tip.
Jeffrey: Can you say a little bit about what your work was like pre-lockdown?
Misha: The main thing I do is help people communicate better, similar to the work that you do, using a lot of the same models and same tools. I’ve been interested in helping people have more effective, meaningful, and valuable conversations, especially in workplace settings. Helping people develop their skills for talking about difficult or important issues, reaching decisions together, those kinds of things. I teach a series of courses called How to Talk to People about Things.
Jeffrey: I love the title. If you want to talk to them about nothing, no, sorry.
Misha: Somehow the “about things” actually added something.
Misha: “How to Talk to People” sounds like it’s about small talk or how to approach strangers. No, it’s how to talk to people about things!
Jeffrey: This is serious.
Misha: Yeah. So I have done that work for a long time, and working in all kinds of ways with individuals and organisations. I also used to do a bit of performance work. I hosted a lecture series called Trampoline Hall. It’s a bar room nonexperts lecture series which we’ve been doing for a very long time in Toronto.
Jeffrey: Which is amazing. There’s a podcast that goes with that. This is interesting for me because of course, we talk a lot about conversations and the importance of relationships, and it’s always kind of a hard sell. People appreciate the theory but there’s always a lot of people who say, ‘is this really important for a workplace? Can’t we just be professional and focus on our work?.’
Squirrel: ‘If we could just get rid of all these emotions and be rational, everything would be so much better.’
Misha: Yeah, I agree. So we have an agreement, we must simply get rid of emotions.
Jeffrey: But apparently that doesn’t work. So people approach us often because they’re having technical issues, or perhaps issues with leadership in technology companies. What’s the kind of thing people come to you about? This is Troubleshooting Agile, give people a symptom they might be able to observe in their life.
Misha: I think the biggest symptom of failure regarding the problems people have in conversations is that they don’t even have the conversation. For a lot of people that symptom is there’s a conversation that you’ve been thinking about having, but you’re not sure whether you should have it. That’s an enormous failure, almost all the time you should have that conversation. Most of us err on the side of avoidance or only having those conversations after outbursts. Almost no one has too many thoughtful, preplanned conversations about the important things in their life. You either avoid them or wait for them to burst out at an inopportune moment. People tell themselves that the conversations are not very important, that they wouldn’t go well, or that the other person doesn’t want to have them, all those things. So that’s a huge symptom. Within the conversation there’s at least two. One is cognitive, which is if you notice that what you’re thinking and what you’re saying are different, that’s often a sign that you’re not doing well. That’s a sign that you’re on the wrong track and you want to correct. If you’re having multiple conversations with someone where you’re often thinking something different than you’re saying, that’s a sign that there’s something there that needs to be repaired. The answer is not that you should just say all the things that you’re thinking. The voice in your head is very good at telling you what needs to be said, but very bad telling you how you should say it. So it doesn’t mean you just go and say ‘You idiot, you suck everything!’
Jeffrey: Isn’t that radical candour?
Misha: Yeah, I’m more on the side of candour moderate. I am not a candour radical. Another one is bodily. Pay attention, how does your body feel in this conversation? Are your hands clenched into fists? Are your shoulders up by your ears? How is your breathing? Pay more attention to what’s happening in your body. It shouldn’t feel hard. In the conversation, if your body feels like you’re pushing a boulder up a hill, that’s a sign that something’s not right.
Jeffrey: I often use the term ‘relationship’ when discussing these conversation problems between individuals. Do you describe that at all? Is that part of it?
Misha: Yeah, the relationship is enormous.
Improving your Conversations isn’t Like Therapy… or is it?
Jeffrey: One of the concerns I hear is ‘this feels like therapy.’ Do you ever get that concern from people?
Misha: I’m not sure if I see it. The longer I do this stuff, the less I feel that is a concern. Like therapy, what we’re trying to do is help you get better at something that’s hard and complicated to get better at. We’re trying to help you get better at something that you’re not going to get better at without a certain amount of introspection and a certain amount of self-understanding. So in some ways, it’s not like therapy, it is therapy. We’re working on slightly different issues. I’m not helping you overcome your anxiety or depression or eating disorder. But in some ways it literally is therapy, we’re trying to help you bring about a more effective behaviour in your interactions with other people, and to do that requires some introspection and some understanding of yourself. When I started doing this, I was scared of it being like therapy. The more I do it the more content I am that it is like therapy. It’s obviously different in many ways.
Jeffrey: I’m very happy to hear you say that because that’s also my view of it. It’s therapeutic, certainly. Squirrel and I will tell people ‘this is going to require difficult emotional work.’ It does so because I can only change my own part of the conversation, and in my traditional way of conversing, it feels great. I know how right I am all the time. If there are problems in the relationship or with the conversations, it’s the other person’s fault. Understanding that it might be mine and that I might need to talk differently, and to do that is going to require this kind of introspection? Suddenly I need to develop self-awareness in the moment, a kind of a muscle I’ve never really developed before, that’s going to be challenging.
Misha: I want to see that not as a cost, but as a benefit, to say ‘in order to be better at communicating, sorry, you’re going to have to become a better person.’ I think it might be nice to be a better person. My inclination is to shy away less and less from the fact that it is connected to fairly deep things about who we are as people and to not see that as scary, but to see that as what’s appealing about it. And it is scary.
Jeffrey: That’s fantastic to hear about your motivation and I think that ends up explaining why it would be that when we all were selling the strange world of lockdown, you were there coming up with a solution to one of the fundamental problems we were having, which is the lack of connection. That’s such an important part of people’s lives, and to help them develop that and help them flourish and thrive not just in the normal daily circumstances, but even these odd times.
Squirrel: Ok, if folks wanted to get in touch with Misha and maybe read his book or come to one of his events or listen to the podcast, any of those things, how would we do that Misha?
Misha: Probably best if you go into Google and type Misha Glouberman. I’m the only Misha Glouberman in the world, by any spelling. You’ll find my website and on my website I have an email list that’s mostly for announcements of events.
Squirrel: Fantastic. Thanks, Misha and Jeffrey.
Misha: Thanks so much. It was a real pleasure to be on the show.