Begin With The Journey to Communicate Effectively - Featuring Brian Hanssen


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By Stephen Matini. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

Excellent communication requires an ongoing effort of self and social awareness to understand both the relationship and the context of the relationship.

My guest for this episode is Brian Hanssen, Director of the Management Communication Program and a Clinical Associate Professor of Management Communication at New York University.

For Brian, storytelling is a vital communication journey transcending cultures and experiences to help any audience transition from the present to the future. As Brian says, “begin with the journey” to be more inclusive, self-aware, empathetic, memorable, and persuasive.


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Brought to you by ALYGN Organizational Consulting


Stephen Matini: You and I share a somewhat similar background. Both of us decided that communication was going to be the focus of our professional endeavors. You've consulted, you teach, and so I've done the same thing, you know, so it's really nice to talk to someone who actually understands my world, without having to explain stuff. I don't know much about your background.

Brian Hanssen: The short answer is my formative years were Boston but I'm born in New York. I was a child in New York. I lived in New York and I've lived in New York longer than anywhere else, but I lived in LA for eight years. I've lived in Central America, I've lived in the East Africa, I've lived all over Europe. My mom is from Germany. She grew up in Germany, so I've spent some time there. I've lived in China or East Asia actually, specifically in China. So, yeah, I mean, you know, those are, I, I, for me to say I'm from New York is what I would say, but actually it's not always. Half of my life was other, other places, but Boston is where I grew up.

Stephen Matini: Were there any events, people, or situations that somehow have shaped the way that you are?

Brian Hanssen: So, actually, I'm gonna start in LA. I went right into education. I went to college in Los Angeles and then stayed out, stayed there for a long time afterwards. And I was a teacher. I actually was emergency certified, because they needed teachers and they went to certain schools and they said, if you went to this school, you don't actually have to have a teaching certification, you can just start teaching and then you have to do it over, over time.

There are two experiences, both from LA both at that same time frame that really stood out to me. One, I was actually, it was my first year ever working out of college, and I was a teacher in a school district that had been taken over by the state because it was so underperforming. And there were a whole bunch of issues. It was the Compton Unified School District in Los Angeles, if you know Compton in, in LA.

And the second example is actually I shifted to teaching with students who were court adjudicated in students who are having issues in the traditional school system. And I became an administrator very, very early on in my career. The Compton experience, I think I went in there with such an idea of what education was. Basically, this is what I experienced, and so therefore I'm going to mimic that and deliver that to my students.

And the pushback, the recognition that my style was not going to work with my audience. I think understanding how to basically break down every institutional system that I had ever thought was the way life was ,right, and realizing I had to start over and actually understand my audience, and rethink how I deliver everything for an audience that just, you know, had such low expectations of the system, did not find that system to be valuable, did not, you know, the basic understanding, the basic assumptions I had about why I was there and what we were trying to do and the goals of this educational experience were sort of BS frankly to the students that I was working with.

And I had to rethink knowing your audience, which is what we teach, right? So really thinking about delivering and communicating to an audience with very specific expectations and doubts, you know, reasons of disbelief, concerns. These are the sorts of things that totally shaped me.

And then if I can go into the second example, I'd love to just share that one. I went into administration at this other high school also in Los Angeles very early on. I was a, like a vice principal kind of role at that, at that school. And I was much younger than the other staff that worked there. That school was in East Los Angeles, the student population, and actually the faculty were largely Latinx. And I'm not, I went into leadership and I was much younger, and you can understand how perception is reality, how challenging that was.

I think for the, for the faculty I worked with. And it was, for me, we really, I think learning about communication and trust, and again, going back to this idea that like, just cuz you're in this position doesn't mean anyone's gonna authorize you in it. And just because you're in this position doesn't mean that like you're automatically going to get the same sort of like, outcome that maybe, I don't know, my experience would, I mean, it was just, at the end of the day, it was sort of like, who are you? Why are, why are you in this position? What value are you going to bring? And until you actually prove any of those things, we aren't going to trust you.

And I think early on, learning these sorts of experiences and being like, wow, all the things that I've sort of assumed to be true in terms of like hierarchy and like following rules and like working towards a certain goal was like, it just because I'm the boss doesn't mean that that's, that's the way it's gonna be.

And, and, and I think that everybody should learn that because it's changed my, like my entire way of communicating, leading everything in between is sort of like, yeah, like I need to rethink every assumption I make about my own experience and why that might be relevant to someone else. And I think that's good.

Stephen Matini: So everything is ... what is the word? Situational?

Brian Hanssen: Situational leadership and, and, yeah, for sure.

Stephen Matini: So education was always part of your plan or you ended up teaching by coincidence? Was it a conscious choice? How did it happen?

Brian Hanssen: Yeah, I wanted to teach. I actually was going to be a lawyer, like most college students. They just assumed that being a lawyer is a good thing. So I was like a political science major. I, you know, took the LSAT and all of that, and I was like, I have no interest in going to law school. I actually interned when I was in high school at like this amazing company and I was in the legal department there.

And I had a lot of exposure to the type of work that they do and lots of respect for it, but it wasn't for me. And I realized I went my, my, like summer before my senior year there was a, a teaching strike in Costa Rica. And basically they were doing a partnership between the University of Costa Rica and the University of California, the whole system.

And they were trying to find Spanish speakers who were interested in not strike breaking but going down and working with students just so that their educational experience wasn't completely like broken, right? So we just worked with students, we had lessons, we, we played with the students, we worked with them and that sort of thing, just so that they were still learning. We were not teachers, we were not paid. And it was more for the students benefit and still very much in solidarity with the teachers who are teaching in Costa Rica. But you know, it was a really cool experience. I'm so glad I did that and it made me realize I wanted to be teaching. That was, that was it.

Stephen Matini: What is that you love the most as of today about teaching?

Brian Hanssen: For me, I think it's actually the, you go into a class, you could teach three classes in a row and they go so differently and it's sort of like, wow, this really killed last year. Like everybody was so into this topic, I'm gonna like, I can't wait to do this again. And then it just dies. It just falls flat on its face. Or other times where you're like, I think I should get rid of this. And then you don't, and people are like really into it and you're like, why?

I don't understand. Like, it's the same exact delivery. I've done nothing different. But I actually loved being a, like, so we, I was a consultant for many years as well, and I loved the change, the nature of change, new projects, new clients, and what I went full time into to this role now, I in academia, I was like, I think I'm gonna get bored teaching the same class for 20, 30 years. And that is so not the case.

Stephen Matini: When was it like maybe five years ago or something. I had two classes. So one was late in the afternoon, and then the following day at 9:00, I had the same exact class quite with different students. And so the one late in the day was a miracle, was so much fun. They were interested, interesting, kind, funny. I mean, one of those classes you think if every single class could be like this, this would be truly heaven, I had so much fun.

The following day, and nine was the opposite. It was the opposite. I could have literally exploded a bomb, nothing would've happened in the class. Like I played all my tricks in the, and everything will will fall flat. But interestingly enough, the one in the morning performed better than the one in the late afternoon.

Every single class, every single group has a life on its own. That group really have a chemistry that is that, and you have to be okay with it. A big chunk of it that is completely beyond my control, I think.

Brian Hanssen: One of my favorite moments was actually that's when I knew I was a better teacher because I've been struggling. I mean, I've always wanted it to become a better teacher, right? And this was now a couple years ago, but the class was just bombing. It was just not, I was not doing, nobody was into it, right?

And it, like halfway through this like little thing I was talking about, I stopped and I was like, I turned to a student to my left. And I'm like, this isn't going well at all, is it? And she went, No!” And like gave me this like, like face and it was just, instead of being insulted or like insecure, I was like, it was just delightful. Just that student's response was like, this is bombing man. Like, you need to stop. And I was like, all right.

Stephen Matini: What did you do after that?

Brian Hanssen: Well, so I, I stopped and I'm like, you know, I actually was really, this is, this is me, right? In a nutshell. I was like, I spent like six hours yesterday alone, putting this together and making this specific for like what's going on in the world and whatever. I'm like, you are so not into it and I just need to understand what's going on. Can we like just take a minute first to like talk to each other and just like wake yourselves up because I'm like dying inside for you.

And then two, I need to hear what's going on. It turned out enrollment was happening at that exact moment and these students are trying hard to get into certain classes and they're competing against upperclassmen or whatever. But the idea was like, because there's no computer in the classroom or there wasn't at that for that class, you know, it was, it was one of those like, they're just really anxious. And then that, that it woke everybody up. It woke me up. I was like, okay, there's a reality. I did not know.

Stephen Matini: You're ne in people's minds. You don't know why they react to you the way they do.

Brian Hanssen: Yeah.

Stephen Matini: Based on anything you said, there's a couple of things that come to mind, which to me are so important in communication and somehow you seem to embody them. One is being authentic, and the other one is to be willing to be vulnerable. And both are not easy to do at all.

Brian Hanssen: Yeah.

Stephen Matini: Particularly, you know, in, in the corporate world. How do you show up to people in a way that is authentic and vulnerable?

Brian Hanssen: In my classes, especially when we're doing, let's say an impromptu exercise or looking at a presentation, like I, I have a couple of presentations that are pretty public actually, and some that are from classes that are just for me to see. But either way, I'll show them, I'll show them and I'll analyze the things that I, that I did not appreciate about my delivery style.

It sets up for the idea that this is the type of experience we're going to have where we're not striving for perfection, we're trying to understand how we can always be more strategic, more persuasive, more engaging, more memorable, those sorts of things. As opposed to you are or you aren't. Which I actually, it's a big pet peeve of mine when people say like, this binary, like you are or you are not, is we communicate every day whether we like it or not.

There's no way we're not, like, unless you have some sort of physical issue of being able to speak, even then you're still communicating, right? So I, I don't, I don't buy it. I don't buy this idea that you're like bad or good at communicating cuz we have to do it. It's a requirement to, to survive. You know?

In leadership I think it's a little bit different. I do think that it's like, I have a sheet right here, it looks like this. And it's basically every promise that I make to someone and it's like, you know, whatever it is. If I say I'm going to do something, I don't just say it, I write it down. I think doing, saying what you're going to do, and then following up and being like, I'm sorry. I know I told you I'd get back to by Friday about X, Y, and Z, but it's just not gonna happen. These are little things that sort of like, again, I think signal I'm real can't do what I promise, but at least I can follow up. And like, I think that's such a big part of establishing trust, being real, all of that. It's a golden rule for me.

Stephen Matini: For me, I guess, it is the switch between thinking that from a communication standpoint, there must be something that I can do or say that comes across authentic. But if you put the emphasis on the relationship, then everything changes. People want to feel that they can trust the person, they can see a real person, someone that is the way you show up. It's the way that you are

Stephen Matini: Based on anything you have observed or study or experience. What would you say that is one of the most important thing to create a better cross-functional communication?

Brian Hanssen: My short answer is doing your homework for whatever reasons we expect alignment or the sort of cross-functional connection to organically happen. And I think o of that can happen if we have regular meetings where we have cross-functional, but often times even in those cross-functional situations, it's a report out. Most people aren't listening to the report outs of anybody else. Maybe there are one or two key leaders who want the macro view from across the board, but typically you're spending most of your life in your own bubble and you're not necessarily engaging around seeking to understand what's happening elsewhere.

So, you know, I would say of course, having these cross-functional opportunities to meet and discuss are huge there. Or I should say they're the baseline. I mean, there are so many different ways you could do it. You could go to like the happy hours, you know, that are part of a different department and just get to know people or, or understand where they're coming from in that type of context. Working groups and really having them discuss and go through real organizational issues and like truly working together and, and not just giving a report out or some sort of like, you know, basic info.

I'm thinking now in the world of academia, like I go to people's talks like from Steinhardt and I'm like listening to people from the history department talk about like, you know, something that happened in the 17th century and you know, it really does not relate very, very much to what I do on a daily basis. But those sorts of connections I think are are key. Like you doing the work to like actually show up for things that aren't necessarily related to you directly, I think make a huge difference.

If you're in leadership, understanding problem solving is a big way of actually like understanding how you change problems to think about how you might solve problems differently. That's culture change. That's Edgar Schein in a nutshell, right? I mean, so I feel like, you know, if you are actually getting people to do real work in real teams that actually reflect the diversity of the organization and get people truly sharing their best selves with other people, that's how you're gonna get some of that cross-functional and it's really hard to do.

One quick story, I will, I I pride myself on being one of the, when I was working at NYU Shanghai, I was one of the only business faculty that would go and show up to these like, you know, arts and sciences happy hours. I will say that I eventually just got on the list and I was invited and I was sort of like in the, in, I was in the in group for that kind of for that kind of thing.

And it made, I mean it made such a huge difference in terms of getting things done and working with people on committees and actually, you know, I think there's a social side to cross-functional that we don't necessarily always, we don't always put enough emphasis on to be like, I trust you, I wanna work with you. It's not just that I have to, or you're somebody who's representing your area in this discussion.

And that for me was like, you know, it was really cool to see how we got things done because I knew everyone's, I went, I wasn't a strat, I wasn't like, I went naturally to these happy hours. I wasn't trying to like ease my way in so that I could like, you know, have the insides coop. It just turned out that way. But it was actually really fun.

Stephen Matini: People try to handle this cross-functional relationship with a very clear idea of what their own agenda is, but they’re almost oblivious to what the agenda the other person can possibly be.

Brian Hanssen: Yeah.

Stephen Matini: They’re so worried about, as you said, at their own bubble that they don't get that the other person may have a really different priorities that are very important to them. So in your opinion, if the organizational culture somehow does not foster a certain type of communication that is open and straightforward, is it still possible to improve cross-functional communication?

Brian Hanssen: Yes, I think that there are absolute grassroots things that individuals who care can do. And I think that they fit into some of the examples I already gave. Like there are low stakes ways for individuals to get to know and understand other people. I can see how frustrating that might be if you're articulating to your own group or to a leader, the disconnect and they don't see it themselves and they kind of shush you.

I can see why that might get demotivating over time. Ideally, you know, in an ideal world, the insights that you bring from these natural connections that you're making as an individual do get recognized and you are able to shine as a result of some of those, those insights. And then from there you are chipping away at this maybe closed culture to collaboration or to, you know, to interdepartmental understanding.

Stephen Matini: There is an organizational culture, but also there are many subcultures that are created at functional level departments, sometimes teams have their own soul. If you understand the culture, the subculture and work within that, I think it's there's a lot that can be done that usually that's where I operate. But that massive cultural changes happen really over incredible long period of time.

Stephen Matini: Based on anything you have seen. If you had to say what is the secret to good communication, what is the first thing that comes to mind?

Brian Hanssen: Gosh, one thing. If it's just one, then I'm going to say self-awareness and empathy building. I'm sorry, those are two things maybe, but I I, to me, understanding yourself and understanding others is like the same. It's like one larger, I don't know, I'm, I'm gonna put that together.

Stephen Matini: Emotional intelligence basically.

Brian Hanssen: Exactly right. It's so interesting because the students that come into the classes that we teach often times are like, here's the situation, tell me what I should say. And I'm almost like, I'm always like at a brick wall, I have no, like, why, why would you wanna know what I have to say? I'm not in this situation. I'm not you. I don't know anything about these people.

Part of the classes that we teach, I, I think so much of that is to pull the students back like 10 frames and be like, you need to understand yourself and you need to understand the world around you, and you need to find ways that you can do that easily and quickly without being intrusive and asking its ton of questions about other people, right? You've gotta be able to do this stuff.

I'm gonna have a part B to your question because I think that only gets you so far. I think the other aspect that I think really distinguishes a good leader and a good communicator is the ability to understand how storytelling works and being able to adapt a story to that emotional intelligent situation or, you know, adapt approach if you will. I think that the storytelling is a big part of it as well.

I see my whole life through storytelling. I like the way I every, everything. It's sort of like, this is where we are now. This is what I'm asking and to get you to a new place, and this is what that new place is gonna be. Storytelling, it transcends culture, it transcends experiences. One little aside to this is I am very against someone like us, meaning people, people who are professors walking up in front of the class and saying, based on my 30 years experience, this is what you should do.

This is not about what I did in my 30 plus year career. Like, I feel like that's just so pointless. There might be interesting stories that get you to think like that's one thing, but to me, storytelling transcends like we've been storytelling since humankind existed, right? And it's the way that we are memorable. It's the way that we actually convey something. It's the way that we actually get heard is through stories. And so being able to do that well after understanding yourself and others and really figuring those two pieces out, I feel like that's what distinguishes you from someone who's not obtaining the objectives or not communicating where they could be.

Stephen Matini: Like you, I love storytelling and have people understand there's a bunch of technicalities and things to know, but the most important gift that you can give to yourself is to be yourself. You know, as you said, to be self-aware. Embrace anything that is you, your oddities, what makes you special and different. And then to show the same kindness to other people or to take the time to actually understand that someone may not be like you. And so you have to, as you said so many times, craft your message in a way that is understandable, maybe should not be called communication. It should be called more like a relationship, made.

Brian Hanssen: Yeah, maybe. Yeah.

Stephen Matini: When you go through a rough time, do you have any favorite ways to pity party? And then what do you do to say that's it, that's it. I have to move on. Is anything you do to move on?

Brian Hanssen: I truly, truly believe in this. I see the world as sort of like a current state, some sort of action, and then a future state. And I always want that future state to have, you know, not every future state is amazing and perfect, right? But a future state that has some sort of reframe to it, that's going to move me in a direction of positivity, right? Like that's, that's my, like, that's what I teach in my classes in terms of the messaging, the thought process around communication.

And when I say where are we now, that's where the empathy and the understanding comes in for both myself and for them and really trying. It's not just like, who's my audience, it's my students, right? But I think in terms of doing that same thing for myself, right? Like if I'm in a personal or professional situation that I think is really, really challenging or, or not where I, not what I want, right?

I do the same exercise for myself, like what am I feeling? Where am I at? What, what am I, where are my true needs and wants and feelings in this very moment? What's actually happening around me right now? And then what is one ask that I may have of others? What is one ask that I may have of myself to get me to a place where those needs are either met better or whatever the, the better state is.

If I wanted to go here and three of my friends wanted to go somewhere else, it was like, it's better for everyone if we can. Like I would prefer for the group to be in a, in a unified space. And to me, that's actually a better state than where I am now. Which why, you know, I mean, these are the sorts of things that I, I naturally reframe and I'm proud that I'm able to do that.

I will add to this pity party over that, you know, fine. Like reframing, thinking about story, asking yourself, you know, what is your journey and how are you gonna get there? Sounds so cheesy, but I really do believe in it. If you can do that. I think that the reframe becomes so, so helpful. If they don't have something on the menu, I'm like, I get to try something new, right?

Like I, and I think that that is like, I'm so, I'm so happy that that's the way I see the world because I do think it makes it, I don't wanna say easier, but more like I said, more, more like, you know, there's lots of change in the world. It's just fulfilling, right? Like to be able to be like, I can get myself excited about a million things, even if that's not what I wanted to do in the first place.

For us as change leaders, like we've, we also have had to do that for organizations, right? Like, as we work with teams and leaders and organizations, it's like we have to embrace change ourself or we're not gonna do a very good job.

I love uncertainty. It does not actually scare me. So, you know, I think that there's, that is a, that's my pity party over not everyone sees the, no one probably sees the world exactly like that. I'm curious, like, so are you a re-framer as well, it sounds like, is that kind of how you deal with this? Or what's your answer to your own question?

Stephen Matini: There's someone that I interviewed like two episodes ago. You see her on the podcast. Her name is Linda Hoops. Linda dedicated her entire life to the study of resilience. She talks about different strategies, and one is reframing is really playing with expectations and I think that oftentimes a lot of pain is caused by harboring not the right expectation. So it's kind of hoping for something to be different and you always end up short, which creates further sufferance.

Stephen Matini: Based on anything we talked about today. If you had to say, what is the central point of what we discussed, what would you like people to remember? You know, the intent?

Brian Hanssen: If you're talking about inclusive and inter departmental communication and connection and empathy and all of the things that we've talked about here, right? I would suggest or say that taking the time to understand this audience journey and framing your conversations around that audience journey surpasses cultural boundaries.

It forces you to go deeper in terms of who you're talking to, who you are. It forces you to think about like a clear ask and and even if it's not communicated directly, at least it's something that's in your head. And like, that should sort of be part of the, the message crafting, you know, it helps create much more specific benefit statements for the audience, right?

I think if you actually take the time to frame your communication around the audience journey and think through that, I really do think it goes right now. We're not the 30 plus year experience. This is what you should do now we're not, this is a very US approach to communication. It's like, no, we all actually can start to frame the way that we connect with others around a very, very basic but important journey. And I think that we, we naturally forget to do that. And yet we naturally appreciate it when others do that.

Start with the journey. And if you can start there, you can be inclusive, you can be self-aware, you can be empathetic, you can be very, very mindful of who you're talking to and communicate clear, well-crafted benefit statements, riddled messaging, right? You have a much better chance of being memorable, being persuasive, having people engage with you and essentially just being heard. Which I think at the end of the day is the number one thing that when people come in my office, I'm hearing that they don't feel that way and it doesn't get any easier as we get older. And so I think if it's about inclusivity and connection and being heard, then I think that frame can just eliminate a lot of stress and challenge.

Stephen Matini: That's fabulous. , that's wonderful.

Brian Hanssen: I believe it. The whole, I really do. I believe that wholeheartedly.

Stephen Matini: And it's interesting because it's these are points that you're never gonna find in a communication textbook, really. No. You find other stuff, but not this, you know, but right? Brian, thank you so much for, for all this. This is really wonderful.

Brian Hanssen: There's a lot of overlap in terms of what we do and how we see the world and how we respond to things. And I've thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. You have been, you've gotten me to think about things that I'm not sure I necessarily articulated before, so thank you.

18 episodes