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Vulnerability · Empathy · AI: Can Technology Bring Us Closer Together? - Ep 4

[00:00:00] Sam: What is your most used emoji?

[00:00:01] Emily: It's the smiley face with hearts around it.

[00:00:03] Sam: Cake or ice cream?

[00:00:05] Emily: Cake.

[00:00:05] Sam: Childhood hero?

[00:00:07] Emily: Punky Brewster.

[00:00:08] Sam: If a movie was made of your life, who would play you?

[00:00:10] Emily: Reese Witherspoon.

[00:00:11] Sam: What skill do you wish you had?

[00:00:12] Emily: Photographic memory.

[00:00:14] Sam: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

[00:00:16] Emily: Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Hi, I'm Emily Fries-Kemney, host of Let's Talk People, where leaders come to bridge humanity and profitability. Informed by a couple decades of work as a head of talent and leadership development, I'm here to amplify leaders so they can exalt everyone and everything they touch. Are you ready? Cause it's about to get real.

Let's talk people.

The context for this episode is that I had an experience of being on a podcast, but the person interviewing me was an AI bot named Sam. It was super cool, very different. And it led me to get really curious about this idea that, could technology bring us closer together, versus what I think is, many of us definitely mind presenting assumption which is, it's kind of taking away and interrupting human connection — intermediating us, intermediating our work, when it's not actually true.

So there's this new, incredible platform called The Real Human Project that utilizes AI to do podcast interviews. And these interviews are for all of us within organizations, as individuals, so that we can share our stories and build greater connection to each other.

So coming out of having been a guest and experiencing being interviewed by an AI, and then getting to hear my episode and the power of that, and how much you would learn about me — and I hope you will listen to it —-  it made me think about having a conversation with their founder.  About what does it really mean to create greater humanity and connection, and in new ways, like new creative ways like this.  And the power of trust and relationships, to not only making work more joyful and fun for us when we come together at work, but it does drive business results, and let's continue to prove that out and explore that. And the power of when teams have that foundation of knowing and understanding each other, how much easier it is to work together and to give each other feedback, so that we can raise the performance of not only the team, but the organization.

CEO and co founder of The Real Human Project, Noah Godfrey, is going to be joining us today.

Noah is somebody who I look up to and I learn from as a relatively new entrepreneur, because Noah has a very accomplished entrepreneurial track record. He has built and sold two tech enabled businesses, one of which was acquired by News Corp. He also brings real diverse experience from having been in corporate strategy and business development at Time Warner and MTV Networks.

He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School. He gives a lot to the community through volunteering with nonprofits, and is the vice chair of the Baycrest Foundation.

Noah, I want to have this chat because when I was recording my episode with our friend Sam, our AI interviewer, I was thinking about this theory that I have about intimacy —  that it's an exchange. And so it was a little hard for me to go into it thinking like, how can I have intimacy if it's a one directional relationship and I'm just putting all this out there? Versus a dance, where I take a step and I share a little bit, and then the other person takes a step.  And because we go back and forth, that's what feels safe.

[00:04:10] Noah: I think your reaction and your insight is spot on. I think as humans, we're okay taking some risk, a little bit of risk.  And I think this visual of taking little steps towards each other as we kind of feel each other out, and I give a little bit and then you give a little bit.  It's the way human conversation naturally happens.

I think it's really astute of you to acknowledge that.  I'll take a big step back for anyone who's listening. So I and some of my friends and co-founders, we've built this thing called The Real Human Project, which you have now tried Emily.  And it is based on what we noticed, which is, the world is incredibly lonely these days, like it feels like we're disconnected, just like we're more isolated than ever.  I think we saw this pre-pandemic with the rise of technology, and I think the pandemic just accelerated it. And we saw maybe there was an opportunity to actually use technology —- podcasting technology, AI —- to our advantage.

Can we, as humans, use it to actually bring us closer together? And so we built this thing where everyone gets their own episode, their own podcast interview. And we have our interviews done by an AI, and they're professionally edited by professional editors.

So you sit with our AI, and AI asks you all the things about who you are. Some things personal, some things about how it is to work with you, some things about your hopes and your dreams and your fears and your struggles and your triumphs.  And you have a conversation with an AI. And then we edit it down to a nice compact 18 minute episode.  And then you share it with the people that are most relevant to you, people who have some sort of vested interest in you.

So we started doing this with corporate teams: people who work together, often but not always remote, sometimes teams that are new and they're coming together and everyone's onboarding, sometimes with teams who've been together for 10 years. And it's really just all about making space for each other, taking time to actively listen to each other, listen to an 18 minute episode. It's like less than a walk to a cup of coffee.

And then when we do it with teams, we have a mechanism where you can leave a private voice reply back to each other. Each person can leave a one-to-one message back to each other about how their episode resonated. And we first tried this out, I thought it would be like a voicemail,  Hey Emily, thanks for sharing your episode. Can't wait to see you. The next time we see each other, great, later.

It's not that. They tend to be like four or five minutes long. People often take notes. It's the, “Wow, I didn't know that about you”, I see you”, “I hear you”, I've got your back. You are not alone”. So it's like the real good human connection stuff.

And we started off doing almost exclusively teams, mostly corporate teams, but also like restaurant groups and stuff like that. But what we've noticed is that it really works for any sort of relationship. I mean, this is what you study, Emily, you're so good at.

It's just about if you could actively listen to someone without interrupting, and you hear them, you get an understanding of who they are and what makes them tick, and you just naturally have this feeling of empathy and compassion, which works to make those specific relationships better, and grow trust and empathy a lot quicker, but also I think is what the world really needs.

We just really need more compassion, understanding for each other. So that's why we built it. And so then your insight on it's a bit of a dance, if the leader goes first.  And then shares their episode with the team, and the leader takes the first step forward and says, I'm going to be vulnerable —  I'm going to talk about what makes me, me. And I'm going to share it, and I'm giving you the option, but I hope that you share back.

[00:08:06] Emily: So after I did it, because obviously I was a little bit like,  Huh, how is this going to feel? You know, am I going to want to put it out there? I think I lean towards trying to put more of myself out there than not. I think that's been what I've been working on in this stage of my own leadership journey,  because before I recorded, I was like, “oof, what am I going to do with this thing? Should I put it out there? Is this scary? Do I need to see more buttoned up for the work that I do with like senior executives? 

And then I landed exactly in the same place of like, those of us who are leaders, if we don't do this, who's going to start creating more closeness? We have not taught people at work.  And one of my kind of dear friends and collaborators, who's a social psychologist and an expert in social emotional learning and emotional intelligence, would say we've never learned relationships, period. Like it's not something there is ever a stage in our lives that we were taught how to do this thing.

And with work, the stakes are obviously a lot higher, because how I show up impacts my job stability, my pay, what projects I get placed on, what opportunities come to me.  And as a result, there's competition, there's sometimes even backstabbing, and so you have to be really careful.

And I've had those experiences when I was on the inside working in organizations, where I was really scared to share parts of myself. Like when I went through my health journey with breast cancer, my fertility journey, I told only the people who needed to know, a boss or two. a colleague or two, but I didn't feel safe.

I literally didn't tell people because I did not feel safe that I would be taken as seriously as a leader, or have the level of responsibility I was capable of handling because I had other things going on. So I've personally been through this process, I think, of thinking about it, and I agree we have to put ourselves out there.  But I also have had the experience of like, it feels like there's risk and there's downside.

So I just wanted to get your thoughts. So maybe if we could start personal, like what part of this experience or this inspiration to create this has been about you?

[00:10:07] Noah: Yeah, that's a great question. I grew up in a household with only brothers, mom and dad and only boys. And it was like your typical boy household. It was like lots of sports, lots of what my mom would call rough housing, you know, often just beating the crap out of each other physically and emotionally, and you know, just making fun of each other, lots of sarcasm. And I was the sensitive one.  Of the kids, I was the sensitive one. And I think I had to like grow a thicker skin.

And I don't say this disparagingly. I think they taught me courage and to be tougher, and to be strong and to persist, and to not take everything so seriously. So I think I owe so much of that to my family and to my parents and to my brothers.

I think on the flip side of that is I don't think I'm naturally empathetic.  I'm not someone who naturally puts themselves in other people's shoes. I've got a wife who does that, and two daughters that do that, but like, that's not me naturally. And when I met my wife, Erica, she taught me this. First, I'd say she taught me the importance of it. And I think I've been on my own journey, my own journey to truly be more curious about others.

And so for me, it is a way to develop a tool to make understanding other people easier. We live in this world where we're just so isolated and so disconnected, and we don't see people at the proverbial water cooler anymore. And so all those non-verbal and verbal cues that we used to get just through informal interactions are gone.

So we're left to decipher the humanity in other people through these very formal and transactional interchanges. And so having someone talk about something as simple as who their favorite teacher was, and why that person was a really good teacher to them, or having someone talk about what a good day at work looks like, or what they learned from their mom or their dad.

[00:12:15] Emily: There's so much I love about this. I have a theory that you know how there's all these woundings around being a girl, and being feminine, and like being a good girl, and being appropriate, and being likable, and all the things that I brought up even in my episode.  But I think the flip side of that is the wounding for men and for boys, which is like to be sensitive, to be deeply feeling, is a weakness. It's not appropriate.

And I think there's something interesting about this work, and how it invites people to fully show up, and to be more connected and closer. And I think it's even helpful to have a role model in you as a successful entrepreneur, business leader, who can not only talk about that you had to come was work your way out of being empathetic, to then work your way back to being empathetic, to then now try to teach others how to do this.

That's what our life's work is. It's like we both find our way back to ourselves, who we really are when we do our self work. And I think you and I have this in common, that we've done a lot of soul searching, a lot of reading, a lot of listening, right? To keep figuring out who we are and then to try to put that into the world to help others.

And I feel like this is an act of love or an act of connection to give people this chance to share themselves. And I think our most purposeful work often comes from that.

[00:13:45] Noah: I love this act of love. I love the idea of act of love. It's theOprah says this thing about the best gift you can give is the gift of yourself.

[00:13:52] Emily: Yeah.

[00:13:53] Noah: And you mentioned something earlier about leaders, and it's interesting.  The leaders who are used to being on stage, or who are media trained, those are the ones who actually, we often need to say, “check your media training at home before you come here. 

It's often harder for them, but what we've noticed, the biggest “aha” is when they do go there, and they share, whether it's like deeply personal or just things that they don't normally share, because it's not like, “here's our projections for next year.”, and they actually share something personal, that the reaction that they get from their people, their organization is just, they're just astounded. I've gotten calls from CEOs who've done this, who said like, “our engagement and our retention has gotten better”. And all I did was show my humanity a little bit more. I just kind of talked a little bit more about me as a person.

[00:14:52] Emily: So I love it. And I totally agree with you. And I think this is the challenge that we're going to put out there. How do leaders go first? This has been a theme. We need better trust. You know, trust is the basis of everything.

And then it's like, how do you action trust? Like trust is a feeling. It's more amorphous than it is tangible. And we stay a step removed, like we put up some walls around ourselves to seem professional or to not mess up, for people to like us, to be a high performer —  whatever is the vision of what buttoned up and good looks like at work.

Those same facades or boundaries we put around ourselves are the same ones, then, that don't allow us to trust each other. And when we don't have a context, we make up our own story.

[00:15:40] Noah: We get that. And we see that. There was one group of six executives and managers, and they were dispersed: London, New York, Toronto, West coast, Canada.

And we found out afterwards that there were two people on the team that didn't even speak to each other. They would only communicate through their manager. And two things happened. One, hearing their stories turn the relationship around 180 degrees. And when I dug into it after, I was like, what happened?

They said, it turns out so and so is notand he's, you know, fill in the blank, nasty word. They're just introvert. So it completely changed that relationship.

On the same team, there was someone else, someone senior, someone junior. I found out later that someone senior, who actually wanted to get rid of that someone junior in their restructuring, he changed his mind and became that person's mentor.

[00:16:41] Emily: Wow.

[00:16:42] Noah: Going into it when they first started, I had no idea that there was that kind of dynamic on the team.  But I found out later that just hearing people's stories, hearing they're real human, made people closer and more understanding. And I think your point about trust is so important.

The rational-side brain of me, because this is why I'm working on the empathetic side of me, but the rational brain tries to put everything into a model. And I love the Frances Frei modelFrances Frei, who I was lucky enough to have as a professor at Harvard Business School — since then, she's gone and she has all these TED talks.  But she has this whole theory about trust and it being a three legged stool.  Between empathy, authenticity, and logic, and that you need all three in order to have trust and build trust and relationships.

 [00:17:30] Emily: It's amazing. I've seen some of the TED Talks. It's really good.

I want to bring it home for you. I want to do, like a split screen, compare. Like if you think about using what you're putting out there in the world for you as a leader, and for your team, and how it's impacted your leadership and your team, are you seeing differences? Are you seeing anything based on what you're learning and by using your own work with your team?

[00:17:55] Noah: Yeah, I can answer that in two ways. Which is, the first way is a lot of this project came out of the post mortem of my last project.  So when my co-founders and I were sitting down, and we were doing a little bit of reflection, like “what worked? what didn't work?”, it seemed like there was like two modes.

There was one mode which was, things were flying. You were moving at a breakneck speed. Things were getting done. You felt like more was getting done in a week than most people would do in a year. And it was fantastic. And the other mode, which is actually the majority of the time, it kind of feels like you're a little stuck in the mud, spinning your wheels.

And there was a drastic difference between those two times. And so we kind of had a discussion saying, “what was the difference between those two times?” And it turns out, the times we were moving fast, we had very clear next steps to what the business needed to take: clear mission, clear purpose, everyone was rolling in that same direction.

The second thing was what Amy Edmondson or other people would call psychological safety. This idea, we just all trusted each other, felt safe with each other. We could bring up silly ideas and not feel like you were going to be judged by them. So like, “okay, that's interesting. It's good to know. If we ever start a business again.

We should do those two things more often. I was like, how can we make it easier for people to connect and get to a place where they feel safer with each other? And so that was a lot of the thinking that went into this. How do we get there? So now that we do that with our own team, we spend a lot more of that time in the breakneck speed mode than we do in the stuck-in-the-mud mode when we center ourselves and reroute ourselves in the humanity of each other, and we see each other as people, and we understand what motivates each other then it becomes a lot easier. But also, the dirty little secret is, the more productive and profitable we're going to be.

[00:20:01] Emily: I know.  This is like literally why I exist in the world, is to help us prove this. So give us like a moment in your team, because I think what I find in my work is conceptually that sounds great, and who would say “No, I don't want to”,  like who I'm collaborating with, and do great work, and move with breakneck speed, and create something incredible.

[00:20:24] Noah: For sure. I think it's woven into our everyday interactions. We spend a good amount of time talking about us, and how we need to align, that actually matches with what's going to get the most out of each person. And there are certain things that certain people are just suited for, just both from a talent perspective, but also just from an inclination perspective.

One of our co-founders is really good at working with our AI models and prompting, and loves that. I love being out there and talking to, and learning from users, and understanding what's going to get people to engage. So you have to really tap into people's what they want to do, what their real desires are.

And unless you have empathy, and unless you have compassion, and unless you have curiosity, and unless you're really honest with what you yourself are good at and want to do. And those are hard conversations.

[00:21:21] Emily: I love this framework. And I love that the reflecting is not just “how do we do it?” It's “where do I fit? What do I bring to it? 

And then as you said, you then try to match up what work needs to get done to the people. And again, my hypothesis as I listened to you, and I'd be curious if this is what you would say as well, is having done the episodes or having had that insight into people's stories and life experiences, and what shaped them.

It helps to inform who should do what as well. And I wonder if you can even unpack like, “oh, that's so interesting”. The fact that that person wants to do more of that work, I can see how that ties to who they are as a person. Then how do I translate those insights into creating a profitable, successful business? 

I think that's amazing.

[00:22:07] Noah: I think it's so interesting because I can't tell you how often we hear, especially from teams or groups that do it, “everyone on the team loves it”, and it's great”, and “they love that”, “Oh my God, I didn't know this about you.

And there's that whole empathy and human connection and understanding, sign that's awesome. Sometimes I'll get a manager or a leader who will like quietly say, “this actually is a really good management tool. Not because I'm going to get more out of people, but because I had no idea. I thought I needed to give Emily more money. It turns out I need to give Emily more praise.

Yeah. That's all I need to do. I just need to acknowledge Emily for who she is, and that's going to inspire her to do better work and want to show up. And it's not whether I give her a 2 percent bump or a 5 percent bump. That's not going to make a difference at all for her, even though that's what I was debating.

[00:23:04] Emily: Totally. You get the kind of deeper inner workings of what makes somebody tick, which is the ultimate to being able to motivate people for higher performance and to retain them, and to create the stickiness that is really the hard part of organizational life these days, because I think the newer generations, and even maybe living through the pandemic, has forced all of us to just get really clear on what matters.

But it doesn't mean we always express it. Sometimes we just don't give all of ourselves at work. And I love that it gives the manager insight into how that person ticks, and thinks, and what shaped them, and instead of as you said, they don't use that to get more productivity. But the humanity part of it is they leverage it to think about how you create alignment between who that person is and what matters to them, and what that leader, that manager can provide.

Like that is such a healthy shift in thinking of like, “how do I get them to do more? So how do I get them to be more?” How do we take what we're learning about how people interact and how they build connection? And I think that what we're really embarking on for the first time is, people have wants and needs around work as a community and as a place of connection. And what we're really embarking on is that we're going to be intentional about building that.

[00:24:27] Noah: It's a great way to frame it. 

[00:24:29] Emily: I think this is really about designing for it.

Like the podcasting tool being a new modality that is familiar. It's now familiar for us to record, hear people the depth of the connection you get from that, from listening to podcasts, and how you feel connected to those hosts and their guests.

And now we get to have it for each other. So I just love the intentionality and I love that we're repurposing something that we've already been experiencing and appreciating, be it podcasts, be it stories, be it our devices.

And using it to deepen our ability to know each other.  And then with that knowing, to build new ways of working together and aligning people to the work in ways that aligns to who they are, their interests. And that's the source of happiness.  It’s like doing work that you're passionate about and love. And as you said, allows you to work on the things that you want to work on because of who you want to be in the world.

And I think that's brilliant.

[00:25:30] Noah: Thank you. I think the technology allows us to be even more human, to connect better as humans. And understand each other and have more compassion for each other is like the essence of leaning on technology to be a servant to humanity, and not humanity to be a servant to technology.

[00:25:53] Emily: Beautiful. I think that's perfectly said. It's like, how does it make our lives better? How does it make our work better? Our connection to each other better? I think that just makes it even more meaningful. And we understand the “why” behind what people do and create in the world.

So thank you for sharing this piece about empathy, and teaching us about another way of looking at how we build connection and relationships, and how we can engage with technology in a way that maybe serves us even better. So thank you so much, Noah.

[00:26:21] Noah: Thank you. And we're learning together.

[00:26:23] Emily: Very much. All of us.

That was such a great conversation with Noah. Let me leave us with some things to think about because this really provoked some thoughts.

One, that you know I care so deeply about and it just brought it home is, it's so hard when we don't really know each other, to be able to give feedback to collaborate effectively, to have difficult conversations, to have discourse. And the power of that broader context of what shapes someone is just so important to our relationships at work.

It also sparked me because, look at how many ways we can start to innovate with technology to have more meaningful relationships and more meaningful ways of doing work together. I think RealHuman is such a good example of innovation at the bridge of humanity and technology / A. I.

And then third, this was just kind of meta and really struck me, is this idea of how do we shift from “how do we get people to do more?” — and trust me, I come from that ilk, I am a worker to the core, and probably was a driver like that as a leader more than I'd like to admit  to instead, “how do I get people to be more? How do I get people to be more?” Oof. That is some soul work for us to do as a community.

I loved this experience. I'm really excited to share my episode of Real Human with all of you.

And you can find the link to it in the show notes.  And I want to hear yours, your turn. I'm giving you the toss. When you head over to realhuman.io, and there's a $50 savings by putting in our promo code  LETSTALK —  L-E-T-S-T-A-L-K — one word,  LETSTALK, I highly recommend doing it. Head over realhuman.io and tell me when you do yours. I want to hear it.

Thanks for joining today's episode of Let's Talk People. For more info and insights, visit arosegroup.com and find me, Emily Fries-Kemeny on LinkedIn and Instagram. If you're enjoying the show, please follow, share on social and leave a rating or review in your podcast app. It helps other listeners to discover us.

Well, that's a wrap, friends.  Until next time when we come together to talk people.

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