This is the thirtieth in a series of podcasts where Judy interviews people who have a track record of successful collaboration.
This series is for anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of real-life collaboration, especially collaboration among creative, intelligent, free-thinking individuals who are geographically dispersed. The interviews go well beyond the obvious, as metaphor master Judy Rees explores the hidden thinking that inspires collaboration that works.
Judy: Hello and welcome to the collaboration dynamics. My name is Judy Rees and with me today is Harry Key.
Judy: Would you like to introduce yourself?
Harry: Sure. What I do with people is I’m a provocative speech and confidence coach, which means that I challenge people, and I push them and I poke them until they laugh and assert themselves. It’s basically using humour to evoke confident assertive states from people.
Judy: What kind of collaborations do you get involved in?
Harry: As many as possible. The most recent one where we met one another was with somebody who’s interested in neuroscience, a woman called Amy Brand, who I’d met at some conferences. She talks about the impact of neuroscience on learning, coaching, and change. And I talk about humour, the role of humour in coaching and change. So we collaborated to do something on what neuroscience has to say about laughter and learning.
But I think I’ve done a lot of weird different jobs in my life, and I would say a lot of them are collaborations.
Judy: I gather you used to work in Bollywood.
Harry: I did, yes. I was a Bollywood actor for 5 years. I played the evil White Man in Bollywood films. I mean, not always the evil White Man – sometimes I was an auctioneer or concierge or flight steward, but most of the time I was shooting and pillaging the Indian people.
Judy: What a fascinating claim to fame! But I don’t know whether that counts as a collaboration for you.
Harry: I don’t know if it counts as a collaboration for me. I guess the way I look at collaboration is a little bit like using the difference between two people or two things to make some of their parts somehow greater. I think I learned a lot from Bollywood, but it is a giant big beast in all the films or ads, or TV shows I’ve worked on were much bigger than me, so I’m not sure it would really be a collaboration. Because I’m not sure I brought anything to it that changed it in any material sense. So maybe I was pretty bad as an actor. I think I reduced the quality of the films I appeared in.
Judy: That’s not true. But for you, collaboration is using the difference between two people…
Harry: Or two things I guess…
Judy: Or two things. Is there anything else about that?
Harry: There probably is. I think it relates a lot to a value that I hold quite dear, which is about variety. And I think people are best, people are most interesting when things change for them. People who’ve grown up in the same town their life and eaten at the same diner (this is such an American thing to say), or have done the thing they’ve always done, they can be lovely people on the inside, but for me on the outside I find them boring.
I guess collaboration to me is finding somebody who has that difference, and then growing and developing from that. And in that, they can grow and develop from the difference in you, or in me in this example.
Judy: When you are collaborating at your best, you are like what?
Harry: The metaphor of a fire is coming to my mind. But I guess it’s quite destructive, isn’t it? You can throw more things on it, you can feed it. I feel like at the moments of collaboration I do with Amy Brand recently, and in other situations like it, I feel like I’m not in control any more. It is very exciting. It’s growing and it’s becoming new and different things that you couldn’t expect beforehand.
Judy: So you are not in control any more, and it’s becoming new and different things. And a fire – is there anything else about the fire?
Harry: It’s a funny metaphor I came up with, isn’t it? I think yes. I think if I would reflect on why it came into my mind, and the very next thought was that it’s so destructive. I guess in some ways I believe that a good collaboration is destructive in some ways. It burns old things.
If I were to take the most recent one as an example, there were some things that I said to Amy, that she just said, “Well, no. The neuroscience suggests that what you’re saying with that is not correct.” Then I feel that that burnt now, I unable now to go around continuing to say something that is now being disproven. I guess, in some sense there is a risk involved, isn’t there? Through that collaboration, you will not have access to old things that might benefit you in some way.
Judy: So it is destructive like that. It burns certain old things.
Harry: Yeah, I think it is. I guess for me in that metaphor, that is the challenge. You need to be careful with it, but you also need to have the confidence to set things alight in that way.
Another example I can think of is I’d like getting a little bit involved in Reddit, which is an online community. Whole mark is free and open discussion. People call one another names and argue with one another, but there are other bits that I like about it. It can be in some peculiar ways constructive and quite illuminating.
I mentioned in that one inner comment, one study that I also talked about in the book I wrote, which was some work by Amy Cuddy around the power pose – how we hold ourselves physically influences how we feel emotionally, and what we think about, and how we behave. I posted that on the site, and somebody wrote back and said, “Well, actually that was a really small pilot study. And there are further studies coming out that suggest that when it’s properly blinded and when you have the largest sample size that goes away.”
I guess, in that sense, it felt to me in that metaphor of a fire like I had this precious thing that I got into print and published, saying I believed in that I’ve thrown onto this fire and it’s now been burnt. Now I have to look at how I talk about the relationship with our body and our brain in a different way now.
Judy: How interesting. I also quote that Amy Cuddy’s study, so I must look into that.
Harry: In that case, I would say it’s not “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”. It’s the follow up studies failed to show a result, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. There are many other studies that pre-date Amy’s that have been verified, which suggests that our behaviour and how we are physically…
There is a study that shows that nodding our head will change our perception of our own opinions. We become stronger in our own opinions if we nod our head while we think about something. It’s the same with people writing CVs. If they sit up straight while they write them, they will gauge the honesty of what they wrote down much more highly than if they slumped while they wrote. There are some…
Judy: There are loads. Have you come across Simone Schnall in Cambridge?
Harry: I have not, but I would want to.
Judy: I forgot what her official title is. She’s a Professor or something around Embodied Cognition in Cambridge.
Harry: Fantastic. Excuse me – I’ll have to add that to a list, because otherwise I’ll lose it.
This is also one of the beauties of collaboration. You say something. The internet is wonderful, but it won’t bring things to you in ways humans can. Thank you for that. Simone Schnall of Cambridge – right?
Judy: Yes. I went up there to see her, and we had a really interesting chat around what she understood around Embodied Cognition, which of course is an enormous field of how the brain and the body interact. But also we were talking about why she didn’t write the popular book on Embodied Cognition, which is so desperately needed, and what would need to happen for her to do that. That’s probably not a story for a public podcast.
Even just a conversation like that can be a collaboration, can’t it? She learned stuff from me about how the worlds of coaching, NLP and Clean Language approach the body-brain connection. Of course, I learned loads from her about what formal studies were going on. She had some really interesting stuff about the fact that if you’ve had a sugary drink, you will perceive the slope you are about to walk up as less steep.
Harry: Goodness gracious! That’s an interesting one, isn’t it?
Harry: Because you’ve got more energy, your body must be looking at that and thinking, “I can handle it, so I’ll adjust it” That’s fascinating, isn’t it?
Judy: Because that one doesn’t even go through consciousness. They gave people sugary or sugar-free Ribena.
Judy: And the difference was very clear.
Harry: I also heard of a study. I believe it was Israel where somebody is writing down how likely it was he were to be paroled. Because parole hearings are heard by a single judge in Israel, they found that if you went up to your parole hearing just before lunch when the judge is cranky and hungry, you are much much less likely to get parole than just after lunch, at which point he’s a little bit tired and he’s just fed, so he thinks you are not such a bad person. Yeah, it is fascinating to me what happens just by consuming things or being surrounded by different things, or sitting or standing in different ways, that can happen outside our awareness to me is just fascinating.
Judy: To go back to you and collaboration, for you collaboration is like a fire or you are like a fire?
Harry: I feel like collaboration is like a fire. It’s like two people bringing their precious things and deciding to build the fire, and then feeding it, and it being something beautiful and interesting, something that changes things, but something that will by its very nature have to destroy some of those things.
Judy: And it will have to destroy some of them. What happens to the others?
Harry: Although this breaks from the metaphor of a fire, but for me, some of the others… I guess it still could be like a fire, couldn’t it? To me, it perfects some of the others. It melts them and reforms them, and they come back out – I guess like tempering steel almost. They go in, and they come back out being much stronger than they were before. They are more powerful, they are more useful, they are more beautiful in some ways.
Judy: So, like tempering steel – more powerful, more useful. It melts them and reforms them, and perfects them.
Harry: Yeah, maybe ‘perfects’ is the wrong word. I have a funny relationship with that word, although I did just say it. It certainly changes them and makes them better in some ways.
Judy: You also mentioned that the process was illuminating, which is a feature of fire as well.
Harry: Absolutely. Yeah, it’s a good point. It is definitely illuminating. It’s so easy to sit at home and think deeply about things, and I think all of us do that. Many of us sit at home and think deeply about things, and think, “Aha, I’ve found the answer. I now know enough.” And I guess in that illuminating way that fire has, it dances and creates new shadows, but brightens things up in a way where you suddenly realise, “I’ve been totally wrong about this for quite some time,” or “My Goodness, that’s an interesting and new way of looking at things that’s helped in the way I look at it now”.
Judy: When it’s a fire like that, and it can be illuminating like that, and with some things it melts and reforms them like tempering steel; and other things – it burns them.
Harry: I’ve got an example of that actually, now that you said it back to me like that. When I was planning this event with Amy Brand, we sat in a café. We were talking, and I was saying, “I don’t understand enough about neuroscience, but could we talk a bit about oxytocin, because I’ve understood it, it’s hug chemical that is released in your brain when you hug somebody and it’s been found at elevated levels when somebody’s laughed. So I think it is something about how laughter bonds people to one another through that oxytocin.”
She said, “Look out, because it seems you’ve got have one half of the oxytocin picture and that’s what most people have. The other thing is that it’s rather than just a good feeling chemical, it’s actually a magnifying glass.” So that if you are sitting in a corner of a room, and you are feeling very alone, even though there are other people in the room. If somebody comes over and talks to you to try to get you to join in the conversation, it will release oxytocin and the effect of it in that situation we believe would be actually like a magnifying glass. It will exacerbate those feelings of loneliness. You would think, “Oh, they just come and talk to me. What do they want?” And I thought, “Oh, goodness, that has quite scuttled the thing I was saying about laughter being so powerful and joining us together.”
In that way, it burnt that thought. Then we came back around to it later, when she said, “What you are actually talking about is honesty. And what it’s probably exacerbating somebody’s feeling it that situation, it’s causing that release of oxytocin and there’s a feeling of dishonesty.” It then reformed and took a new place in the discussion.
That’s what I’m talking about. I had to throw away this old idea that I was going around, saying, “Oh, oxytocin is a good thing”. It’s actually on both sides of that. If somebody is feeling constantly lied to and they are not challenged enough, then they see themselves as weaker. Through many interactions the nicer people are to them, the stronger that feeling will grow. Challenging them with humour could cause them to release the serotonin and dopamine that comes with feeling happy and laughing. And oxytocin will magnify that positive feeling of laughter and togetherness.
Judy: So that new conception of how these hormones work, that’s been melted, been reformed, and is stronger, like that tempered steel.
Harry: Yeah, exactly.
Judy: And what difference does that make?
Harry: The difference that that makes and that it’s now tempered is I now feel, if I’m talking to another neuroscientist for example, or if I’m talking to someone who really knows the neuroscience, I now have a weapon, have something that isn’t quite so brittle, isn’t quite so weak, it can’t be broken as easily. What I would have had before was a flimsy little bit of much softer steel to go into those discussions. I feel better armed in that way, particularly to have those more difficult discussions where people say, “What does an ex-Bollywood actor doing talking about neuroscience?” I say, “Well, check out this giant sword I’ve got! Chop!”
I think that’s what collaboration does. It means that through breaking those brittle things, through melting them down or setting them up in smoke, what you’re left with at the end is perhaps fewer, but they are much stronger and much more useful, and more likely to be true.
Judy: I suppose the critical question is when that’s the process with the fire like that, where do fires of that kind come from?
Harry: Where do fires of that kind come from? I’ve always got a feeling it’s like they come from the arsonist, they come from the fire bug. When I was at university, we were renting a house. We had a big backyard that didn’t have a gate on it. One morning I was looking out of the back window, eating Weetabix, about to go off to university, and two kids came into the backyard, walked up to the clothesline where I had a bed sheet, and set it on fire.
Harry: Yeah. I chased one of them, and then I took him back to his parents place. The moment I got to his parents’ place it became clear why he was wandering around setting people’s bed sheets on fire, because there were problems. The other kids weren’t even going to school. The mom came out and said, “Oh, I’ve been waiting for somebody to tell me what he’s getting up to.” Ah, goodness, this is the problem. This is why this kid is going around burning things.
I think the fire partly comes from an excitement, and partly from just stripping things away to think, “These are all good ideas, but they are just mine.” So when I collaborate with somebody else, when I say to somebody else, “Let’s go set up a big fire,” we’re both putting our prized possessions, our beliefs at risk. That must come from inside me, I think, in some sense of dissatisfaction maybe, a feeling that I might have something wrong, that things might not sit better, but also a sense of celebrations. I want to bring people together. I want people to all sit around giant campfire and laugh, and sing, and have fun, and enjoy themselves, and learn new things, and maybe chuck a few of their possessions on the fire too.
Judy: Is there anything else about that campfire, when everyone is sitting around it like that?
Harry: It’s great! It’s so much fun!
The one that’s present in my mind is that event. I thought it was lovely, because, to stick with that metaphor, there were people arguing at points as, “What are you talking about? It’s all good and well to be funny. The way you’re talking is just sometimes nasty.” In some sense I guess you could look at that as them trying to through a bucket on the fire, but I don’t think they were. I think what they were doing is say, “Here is this prized possession of mine, a belief that we should be nice to one another.
And I’m putting it up for discussion. I’m throwing it out on fire, because I want to see how that comes out. It then led to a really interesting discussion, which with me talking and Amy talking, but most interestingly, it was other people who turned up to listen to a talk. It became a discussion of “Is it really nice to say something nice to somebody if it’s not honest, and it it’s not helping them?” In that sense, when people are sitting around, it’s like they are going through a vulnerability themselves, they are exposing themselves to a state of vulnerability.
And it’s beautiful! We laughed a lot. I was laughing till I nearly cried, and people thought it was a lot of fun, and from memory the person who said that, got to the end and through things I’ve been saying to Amy and I’ve been saying to other people they said, “I think you’re right about that. I think what I’ve been doing typically is being nice to people, but I’ve been protecting my own feelings. And I’ve been letting people get off the hook or do naughty things just because I wouldn’t want to be so unkind as to tell them what annoying person they are. (I so nearly said an unclean word there!).
Judy: When you’re involved in a collaboration like this, like that fire, there is a campfire and you’re chucking your precious things on it, and some things are being melt and reformed, and all that stuff is happening, what’s happening to challenge?
Harry: Challenge is almost like the effigy. It’s almost like the whole fire is that… It’s reminding me now of those pictures – I’ve never been, I would love to go, but of Burning Man. You’ve built this giant thing, and it’s almost in some senses a challenge to the gods that we can build something so enormous and set it on fire.
What’s happening to challenge is it’s growing and it’s getting bigger. It almost is the fire in a sense. It’s eating things, but it gets bigger and it makes things better. In order to make that collaboration success I need to be willing to be challenged and welcome it, and so does Amy, and so does everybody who comes into the room. They need to challenge themselves to say, “Listen, I’m not sure I’m thick skinned enough. I guess I’ll find out.”
What’s happening to challenge is as the other things are being burnt and broken, it’s getting bigger. It becomes like a beacon, like a signal to people for miles around that somebody is doing something interesting over there, and in that way inspires other people to want to do the same thing.
Have you ever seen somebody change their mind in public in front of a group of people?
Judy: it doesn’t happen very often.
Harry: Exactly! And it’s so rare that the few times I have seen it with somebody like this person at the event – “Oh, I haven’t thought about that by the way.” That’s like they are chucking a really big flammable thing on this fire. You can now see it for long way. Everybody else goes, “Goodness, that must have been scary. I’m sure that desk had a lot of drawers full of stuff in it that you quite liked.” But in another sense they go, “Goodness, that must be freeing. You can now wander around without dragging that around with you. How brave you must have been!” I think in that there is a desire to feed the fire on other people.
Judy: That’s exciting.
Harry: It really is. I’ve never thought about it in this way.
Judy: Thank you very much indeed for sharing your metaphors and your thoughts on the topic. As we are coming to the end of our time – I always ask my interviewees – if people want to contact you and talk more about this, who should contact you? And how can they find you?
Harry: Anybody can contact me. The best way to find me is either through my personal website, which is harrykey.com or my company. We do training and coaching, particularly around presentations skills. We’ve been talking about challenging people with humour. That’s an underlying current of how we do what we do. We mostly focus on presentation skills and making people more confident, assertive and interesting. They can go to weignite.co.uk, or find me on Twitter – @harrykey and tell me how horrible I am.
Judy: I can’t let this close having just heard your website address without asking. Is there a relationship?
Harry: I hadn’t even thought of that! I hadn’t noticed. That’s really interesting.
Judy: Is there a relationship between ‘ignite’ like that and the fire with the effigy?
Harry: I guess at some level there must be, mustn’t there? It certainly hadn’t consciously occurred to me at any stage. I think there is. I think that part of the way that we came up with that name for the company was that we recognised through coaching and training it’s very-very difficult and unlikely to fix people. Particularly what you do is you can ignite something, some desire to go – and I guess following back from the metaphors – ignite some desire that they go and throw things on the fire.
Judy: Isn’t that interesting? I’m used to it, because I play with people’s metaphors all the time, but that kind of experience – you’ve just talked a whole load about burning effigies and all that kind of stuff you talked last half an hour about it, and you didn’t connect it with your own website name, your own company name.
Harry: No. In hindsight it would have all seemed a bit too slick, if I had done that. [Inaudible 26:55] with my company – let me talk more about what I do. No, it is quite interesting. I have never thought about that – oh is that accidental plagiarism? I mean, I’m plagiarising myself but you know when you say something that somebody else said before and you think it’s original.
Judy: My sense would be the same you who was talking with your colleagues to come up with a company name is still the same You at some level that is talking, “This is how I think about my stuff.” The metaphor is deeper. It’s quite fundamental to who you are, rather than being surface dressing. It will keep on recurring. What we notice is we do work with people whose metaphors is the same kinds of metaphors recur for people over decades.
Harry: It’s really interesting. What does this mean about me?
Judy: That would be a whole other question.
Harry: Thank you very much for exposing that. I think I need to go and lie on the couch and think about how I had managed that.
Judy: Thank you so much for sharing your metaphors. I really appreciate it.
Harry: Thank you for bringing them out of me! I’ve never thought of them before.
Judy: Thanks a lot. Cheers!
Harry: Cheers! Thank you.