Open your ears

Open your ears

How can we work with all of our faculties, adding sound to vision and the spoken and written word, deprivileging (body) language and visual cues, as ways to tune in to people and organisations at the deepest level?

This note explores some of the work we've done over the years with sound and silence in workplace settings.  Sounding out the workplace and the people in it. I've started with Ghislaine Caulat on virtual leadership and 3-level listening, then moved on to looking at found sound and soundscapes in organisations, drawing on some research around learning spaces, and work done with the World Health Organisation in 2011 and the Asian Development Bank in 2008-2009. Ending with a couple of the suggestions on intentional shared soundscapes that come from the recently published LEF research (*)

Listening on three levels

Listen, Forget Body Language. With this invitation I make the point that, through our virtual work in audio and web-and-audio based environments, we can develop a different listening ability, a sharper sense of connectedness with others in the field, a kind of seventh sense that enables us to connect at a deeper level (than in face-to-face) with ourselves, others and the universe.  [Ghislaine Caulat, Virtual Leadership, Invitation 2**]

Of the invitations Ghislaine Caulat offers for virtual leadership, invitation 2 is, for me, the most interesting and unexpected. Here's a digest of that which most resonated with me in this context of exploring sound and silence at work.

By working invisibly, rather than relying on old visual modes carried across to the virtual from the physical (i.e. the visual cues of what we call body language), we can become more aware of ourselves and others. The odd paradox of virtual working with intended invisibility, is that one level of sense-making slows, but people get faster at penetrating to what really matters and connecting at a deeper level.

Starting with an awareness of one's own responses is critical. If the lack of a line of sight is seen as a deficit versus face-to-face or visible encounters, this limits the opportunity to make more of not seeing each other, in fact value the distraction and disconnection that remote visibility often introduces.  We need, I suppose, to grow unaccustomed to each other's faces. In fact

Using the visual channel might actually lock people into a substitute modus operandi (for face-to-face) whereas non-visual channels offer new and different ways of connecting...

She goes on to quote several sources from the worlds of Gestalt and psychology who argue that the voice is 'pregnant with whom you really are' (Heron, 1999). By listening to pitch, tone, rhythm you gain access to the complex unspoken emotional contexts that might be governing reactions and contributions in a group. Not only that, by choosing invisible, more auditory ways of connecting, we are countering the default in Western cultures which privileges seeing over hearing and listening. Light moves faster than sound, so to listen you must slow down.

A German jazz author, Joachim-Ernst Berendt wrote in 2007 that only the ear can both measure and judge. 'The ears do not lie' he wrote.

The eye touches the surface. But nothing can be perceived by ear without penetrating. Even when something is loosely heard, it will go deeper than the look. The 'hearing' person has therefore more chances to go in-depth than the 'seeing' one.  [Berendt, translated by Caulat]

All of which leads Caulat to urge leaders (or everyone really) to develop what she calls the muscle of listening on 3 levels: to content; for emotions and feelings; and, from gut instinct.

A lot of getting out of your own way, unlearning face-to-face habits and emptying out the space to become aware of, and work with, auditory environment at work.

In passing, I was discussing this invitation with a friend who teaches at RADA. He wasn't convinced that invisible presences lead to more meaningful encounters. For him, the whole, embodied person with all faculties firing, eyes, ears, nose, touch, feelings is what it takes. Although he did concede that virtual leadership presents particular challenges in how to show up. He did also say something about noticing and naming silence. Is our default in organisations to take silence for assent, or to be too busy crowding the space with opinion and voice that we skate over silences as though they aren't there? Is it more often dissent that is being expressed through a non-speaking role in the meeting? What happens if we flip our assumptions and invite people to express what lies behind their silence, taking it to be a no, rather than a yes?

Silences and soundscapes in organisations

Hopping over the very interesting literature and practice of the shared unconscious at work in groups (Foulkes, Bion, you are for another time, but not forgotten!), and the auditory, visual and other cues that inform different kinds of decision-making (think firefighter, nurse, surgeon, where minute differences and anomalies are only available to the recognition-primed expert - Gary Klein, Dorothy Leonard, I'll get back round to you).  That's a lot of not wandering down interesting byways, but I want explore, for now, the overlooked role of silences and soundscapes by way of reference to a paper written with Clive Holtham and Maike Bohn in 2002, creating a soundscape with the Asian Development Bank in 2008, and going on mission with the World Health Organisation to Sudan in 2011, and end with some of the suggestions for making intentional soundscapes in the collaborative working environment that came from the LEF work.

Tempo & tacet at work

In the 2002 paper 'Slow knowledge: the importance of tempo in debriefing and in individual learning' Clive Holtham, Maike Bohn and I(***) probed both found sounds that emerge through holding silence, and the tempo of different kinds of knowledge work. We looked into Quaker business practice, and the measured way in which silence is introduced into Quaker meetings brings both room for discord and space for accord:

Periods of silence mark the beginnings and end of each meeting. The silence is of the same quality as in a regular Meeting for Worship: that is, it is a worshipful silence. Silence may also be invoked as needed during the discussion. For instance, if conflict arises, if there is an impasse, or if someone perceives that it would be desirable to deepen consideration of an issue, the clerk or someone else may call for silence [Louis 1994, quoted in Slow knowledge]

In music, the tempo indicated by the composer at every stage of the piece is taken very seriously by conductor and players and they work together to honour the composer's intentions. Quaker business meeting practice has found a way to include shared understanding around tempo into the way meetings are conducted, and the way space is opened out for distributed power, and careful listening and making sense of things together. Notable is that the worshipful principles that apply in spiritual meetings also have their place in business meetings.

Repetition and recognised rituals of form also play their role in in creating internal resonances, a listening-shaped space in the audience. Silences count for everything here. The spaces between the notes are what give the music shape. Much as negative space can count for more, even than the sculpture around it -  'A hole can itself have as much shape-meaning as a  solid mass' says Henry Moore in The Listener 1937.

What does knowledge management sound like?

In 'Slow knowledge' we also considered John Cage's work, in particular 4'33", as a disruptive object, and as a learning-shaped listening space. In conversation about his 'silent' work 4'33" with John Kobler (1966), John Cage said:

They (the audience) missed the point. There's no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence (in 4'33"), because they didn't know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out. (****)

That idea of accidental sounds has been carried forward into other work we've done, perhaps most interestingly in a mission to Sudan with the World Health Organisation in 2011 to better understand the role of knowledge management in health action in crises. We ourselves gathered found sound as we went, and these sounds, when I replay them are startling in the way they take me back to that mission, and sharpen my understanding of the complexities of knowledge management in crisis settings: the sound of footsteps scraping across a sand-covered floor in the Ministry of Health building in El Fasher; or, the sound of my bolt scraping across my metal bedroom door to lock me in at night.

The pictures do some work to get me back there, but the sounds do more.

We also found that our normal questions around metaphor and image simply could not be processed. Our cultural assumptions about access to these kinds of abstractions were not well placed, particular when people were under such physical and emotional pressure in such a fragile and unpredictable setting. So we moved to slightly disruptive questions which it was possible for people to answer. What does knowledge management sound like to you?  Helicopters, silence, donkeys, gunfire, children....the soundscape of knowledge management in crisis was revealing and added great auditory texture to our data collection.

While writing this I recalled that Paul Riches, formerly of BT, years ago shared with me a recording he'd made of what the knowledge economy sounds like. I couldn't find it, so got in touch and he very kindly made for me a new recording of the digital ecosystem. Digital altogether more mysterious and less crackly than knowledge, as I recall the mislaid file. Thanks Paul.


Winding back, our most ambition project with sound was done as part of a project working on narrative and knowledge management with the Asian Development Bank.  We invited David Gunn into our team, as a kind of expert in developing archives of found sound and creating compositions with them. We didn't know what would happen, but we wanted to know what would happen if we spliced short extracts from oral history interviews with found sound to create a different ways of rendering the soundscape and story of the ADB in polyphonic ways, go beyond what they might be expecting from a storytelling project. As part of the gathering, we also used the 'what does ADB sound like?' question in our voxpops and that told a hidden story. The sound of air conditioning going off at 5 pm when most people left the building. The sound of footsteps on the wooden 8th (senior leaders') floor versus footsteps on marble everywhere else.

We wrote twinned essays, one from the analyst (me) and one from the artist (David) for the CD booklet. Here are a couple of extracts.

Organizations mostly record themselves in words and pictures. They write themselves down in papers and reports and briefings and agendas, in governance frameworks and policy documents and manuals and guidelines and protocols and risk assessments. Spreadsheets and Gantt charts and the representation of statistical findings leaven the diet of words to some extent. In annual reports and formal publications and PowerPoint presentations, there’ll be pictures and illustrations.
Sound is rarely used. And where the organization does share the sound of its own voice, it’s normally senior, polished practitioners who are authorized to share a carefully crafted message. In short, the structures and artifacts that govern organizational exchange and communication have tended to style themselves as upholding independence, objectivity, succinctness, and high-level summary at the expense of evocative description.
Of course, this is necessary in order to get the job of being in business done. But in this process, something is lost. Much as any muscle that isn’t exercised atrophies, so does the organizational imagination and faculties. If the sensory palette is limited, this impoverishes both the witnessing of, and listening to, experience, so reducing the range of resources that the organization has at its disposal with which to get its work done. (Victoria)
And we were walking the corridors of head office, recording everything we could find. Trying to find those sounds that reflect the acoustic character of the space– women’s shoes on marble, ringing phones echoing in the atrium, the hum of the air conditioning, and the endless circuits of clattering tea trolleys We were sat listening to interviews with some of those who have been participants in and witnesses to ADB’s past. And we were drawn deep into the sweep of that story, tracing out the over- lapping contours of many histories–personal, organizational, political, regional, international. Long after we left, those remembrances stayed with us—stories of peculiar power, existing precisely on the fault lines between objective, professional expertise, and an intimate world of simple, human feelings about the smallest moments, of silence and reflection, drifting down the Irrawaddy in darkness... (David)

Surround sound

Arriving, to close with, with the unexpected frequency with which questions of noise, crackle and sound came up in the LEF research into collaborative workspaces. The quality of headphones, unmuted headphones at railway stations on conference calls, not being able to find a retreat from the noise for a call, the unquiet of the workplace, or sometimes the too damned quiet workplace where every sentence echoes and ricochets, slamming on the headphones and your own playlists to signal to the world you are not to be disturbed, and to sink into a private creative space in open plan.

And then there was the idea of soundscapes, through shared playlists, or selected sounds which cue a particular moment in the meeting, as an intentional part of building a sense of shared experience and identity for distributed teams.  Here's an extract from one of the checklists in the report which asks a few questions you might also want to ask yourself and your team.

Image | LEF

Want to spend more time on this?

You could listen to the ADB soundscape:

Or read the whole CD booklet that accompanied the CD. I especially like tsunami, although this is more the storytelling effect in ther counterpoint between massive disaster narrative we all think we know something of, the personal story of Norman keeping the website alive, and the texture, rhythm and crackle David Gunn has achieved on the track.

This article from The Guardian about Hildur Guðnadóttir’s research for her Chernobyl score is also thought-provoking, as she sought to have the power plant 'be a voice in itself'.

Guðnadóttir’s Joker score speaks to Arthur’s mental state, her Chernobyl score conveys radiation. Just before the series was filmed in August 2018, at the Ignalina nuclear power plant in Lithuania, she went to Chernobyl with her score producer. Slipping into hazmat suits, they recorded for hours to pick up the ambient noise. She wanted the power plant – and the radiation – “to be a voice in itself. I wanted to understand the feeling of what must have gone through people’s heads as they were trying to navigate through that disaster.” It was incredibly effective: the result is like a sort of creeping death. “I didn’t know what it was going to sound like,” she says. “It was like treasure hunting. You go in there with completely open ears and you just listen.”

Also, why not download the John Cage app and start recording your own 4'33" as a way of opening your ears.

By chance, too, this interesting article just published in the Guardian about the new Kingston library, challenging all kinds of assumptions about a library space, including:

the library has graduated levels of noise as you rise through the building, with a talking floor, a whispering floor and a totally silent floor, which seems to be working so far

And my partner put me onto Fix Radio (with the wickedly brilliant strapline 'we're nailing it') launched in 2017 with the 80's classic 'We built this city' to provide upbeat music and banter, the soundscape of the building trade:

We're  for builders, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, roofers, painters,  decorators, plasterers scaffolders - in fact, anyone who makes their  living in the trade.

It does remind me of one of my many unfinished (unstarted) projects, one of which was to collect modern labour songs.

Of course you could invite Caitlin and me in to run a workshop for you to deepen your insight into collaborative workspaces. It's a rewarding and surprising experience for everyone, we've found so far.

And if you are curious, while I was writing parts of this I was listening to Iiro Rantala's My Finnish Calendar to block out the sounds of meetings at the club I was working in. Highly recommended.


(*) 'Reconfiguring the collaborative workspace: making the most of time, space and attitude' by Dr Caitlin McDonald and Victoria Ward with contributions from Joseph Cook, LEF 2019

(**)   'Virtual leadership: learning to lead differently' by Ghislaine Caulat, Libri Publishing, 2012

(***)  'Slow knowledge: the importance of tempo in debriefing and in individual learning' by Professor Clive Holtham, Victoria Ward and Maike Bohn, OKLC Conference Athens April 2002

(****) John Cage in conversation about his ‘silent’ work 4’33” with John Kobler (1968)

Image from the front of John Cage's 4'33''. here's the full front cover:

Notes from the LinkedIn comments after posting the blog on LI, for later reference

You remind me of some lovely work by Curtis James which he told me about where he infused a report to Abel and Cole with the smell of freshly dug potatoes. There's a whole blog to come later about surfacing knowledge and how all the senses play a role in recall...

(Curtis) Funnily enough, I'm attending a whole bunch of events connected to deep listening at Sussex University this week. When we delivered that work to the board, we also played soundscapes of the potatoes' journey, which felt essential because the board room was so far removed from most of that journey.

Acoustic ecologies:

Hildegard Westerkamp - inside the soundscape
Hildegard Westerkamp is a composer, radio artist and sound ecologist.She presents soundscape workshops and lectures internationally, performs and writes. This section features her writings.