Episode 38: with Janie Van Hool discussing great communication and risk reduction

Today’s guest is Janie Van Hool.  She is an author, speaker, facilitator and teacher in the art of brilliant communication. She supports business leaders to connect with and inspire their people.  Janie focuses on practical ideas, tools and encouragement that create confidence, enable impactful change and shape inclusive listening cultures. She has supported and advised leaders in a wide range of industries from banking, telecoms and financial services to retail, pharmaceuticals and consulting.  Janie’s book – The Listening Shift – draws on the learning and experiences she gained as a classical actress, a voice teacher (she has an MA in Voice Studies), from her research into Performance Psychology at Edinburgh University and from her years volunteering as a listener for Samaritans in the UK.  See more at www.voicepresence.co.uk 

The International Risk Podcast Transcript

Harriet Tyler  0:09 

Hi, you’re listening to the international risk podcast. This podcast is for CEOs, board members risk and compliance officers, security advisors, and anyone interested in improving operations.

On this podcast, we hear from the traditional to the working from renowned risk management experts to Red Bull daredevils, there is something to learn about the way we perceive, manage and mitigate risk from all of our guests.

Your host, Dominic Bowen will ask the questions that you will want the answers to. If you know, Dominic, then you know, he is well acquainted with risk and his 20 year career has seen him successfully establish operations in some of the most complex environments around the world. Dominic has spent most of his career establishing large and successful operations in places like Haiti, Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and so many other high risk and medium risk locations. Joined by our excellent guests, he’ll reveal innovative ideas on how you can ensure your organization thrives in areas with high risk.

Dominic Bowen  2:06 

Welcome to the podcast today Janie.

Janie Van Hool

Thank you so much for having me, Dominic. It’s lovely to be here. Great. I look forward to our conversation.

Dominic Bowen

Hi, I’m Dominic and I’m the host of the International risk podcast. Today we’re joined by Janie Van Hool. She’s an author, a speaker, facilitator, and teacher in the art of brilliant communication. She supports business leaders to connect with people and inspire their teams. Her focus is on really practical ideas, tools and encouragement to create confidence enables impactful change and shapes, inclusive listening cultures. She’s supported and advised leaders in a wide range of industries from banking, telecommunications, financial services, retail, pharmaceutical and consulting and brings a wide range of stories and experiences to the podcast today. her recent book, the listening shift, draws on the learning and experience that she actually gained as a classical actress, and the voice teacher. She actually has a Master’s of Arts in voice studies, as well as her research into performance Psychology at the Edinburgh University. And of course from her years volunteering as a listener for Samaritans in the UK. You’ve got a really interesting background as a classical actress of voice teacher, some background in psychology, so what are you doing today? And what is it that you’re focusing on?

Janie Van Hool  3:33 

Well, I yes, hearing you introduce all of those things. It does make me think I have dotted about a lot. But today, I’m speaking with you from Bristol, in England in the UK, which I’ve been living here for about 15 years, but I work all over the place. I work all over the country. I’ve worked, as you said internationally with leaders. My first job actually was in Iraq.

I completed my classical actor training and then did 12th Night in Iraq and Pakistan. And I remember having lunch on the Khyber Pass one day with a traveling troupe of actors and it was extraordinary. But the way I ended up doing what I’m doing now is really quite by chance. I was doing a master’s in voice dissertation and I met a woman on a beach. And to be honest, Dominic, I’d had a couple of couple of drinks and I had a bit of alcohol confidence. And she was asking me about my dissertation. And then she said to me, oh, I wonder if you would be willing to work with our chief executive  She told me that she was the head of Management Development for a large bank and she felt like her chief exec could really do with some help on how he communicates with people. And so I I’d had a bit of, you know, alcohol confidence and I said, ”Yeah, of course I could do that no problem” and then two days later, when she called me realized I couldn’t get out of it. But it started my journey with working with leaders, because actually actors have really useful crossover skills. Because we think about audiences, we know how to influence audiences, we have to really craft the way we communicate the words that we’re saying. And of course, as an improviser, you have to have mental agility, you have to be able to really think on the spot and be spontaneous, but also work within structure. So over the last 20 years, I’ve drawn on so many of those skills from navigating theater in Baghdad to all the way to here where I work, as you said generously, across a lot of industries.

And, and then wrote my book, the Listening Shift, because lately, I’ve thought, I’ve spent years working with leaders on how they communicate, how they speak, how they communicate strategy, how they articulate their ideas and I don’t see a lot of listening going on. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re all in a bit of bother at the moment.

Dominic Bowen  6:13 

For sure. It’s interesting that you talk about the skills that actors bring, because I facilitate high risk training for people that travel a lot for their work. And the first person I always bring on one of these travel risk training courses is an actor. And people often say, “Oh really, why don’t you bring on a security professional or someone with experience in high risk situations?” And my response is that it is because of other skills that actors bring, whether it’s breathing skills, listening skills, communication skills, even the way you hold your body, and the sort of risks that your demeanor can bring. I find that when I can break it down to that sort of detail, people understand that if you talk about terrorism stats, or how to avoid crime, it can be a little bit theoretical, but if you get ten or 20 people in a classroom and get everyone to stand up and then start talking about different ways to hold your body, different ways to breathe, to stay calm, to communicate, and to be aware of how our vision can narrow in high risk situations, these really practical skills that people walk away from the training with are really appreciated.

So I think you’re, you’re on the money Janie – listening is so important and so are the skills actors bring.

Janie Van Hool

Yeah, I’m delighted to hear that you do that, because the intellectualization of risk strategies and how you travel, how you approach risk internationally, sometimes we can be in our head too much. And theory is great, but if you’re thinking too much about that, you’re not noticing the behaviours that are going on around us, and it’s not just awareness of self, but it’s also any part of an actor’s world to pay close attention to what other people do. So you can notice the slightest movements, or just that whole body language piece. Why are they sitting like that? Why is their foot tapping like that? Why do their eyes crease up? I find it incredibly useful to become in tune with your surroundings, which does allow us to pay attention and reduce our exposure to risk. And I think in your world of risk, paying attention has got to be the starting point.

Dominic Bowen

So much of risk management really is awareness. Sometimes people talk about that sixth sense, but when you break it down, and speak with people after a security incident and often they will say, ”I felt like something was wrong just before the incident.” So when you break it down, you’re actually not feeling a sixth sense, but it is what you could smell or what you could see or what you could feel using your five senses. And invariably, there was less people on the street than usual, or the sort of interactions occurring, or when you were making eye contact with people or not making eye contact with people, these are things are not six senses, these are things that if we become attuned to what we are already seeing, and we’re already hearing, and actually processing it, we turn that into awareness, and then you are in a much better position to be aware of risk. Awareness also means asking yourself ”What emotions Am I feeling? What thoughts am I having?” If you’re feeling a sense of unease, sometimes you need to really dig deeper into that because it might be something like ”I’ve been in this kind of situation before and it was uncomfortable before so I’m uncomfortable again” and it might be really valid. A little more analysis and awareness gives you more data, and more data is more knowledge and more power to add to your decision-making and risk-mitigation processes.

Janie Van Hool

It simulates.

Dominic Bowen

Exactly. I was speaking with the airline pilot recently. And he said that in their business, they use the quote, ”if there’s any doubt, there’s no doubt”. So if you’ve got concerns about if that airplane’s wing is a bit loose today, then you do not fly that plane. And of course, it’s obviously much more subtle than a loose wing on a plane. But generally, if there’s any doubt, if you’ve got some concerns, then there is no doubt: you need to investigate that doubt thoroughly.

Janie Van Hool

And I think it’s something that Matthew talks about in his book Blackbox Thinking. Being a senior leader can sometimes prevent people from expressing doubt. The sort of confidence over competence thing. And, you know, there’s a massive risk in not speaking up, actually. And I hope that in this time of agitation, we are getting more confident about speaking up. But I don’t know if we are really.

Dominic Bowen

I think that that’s really valuable. About a year ago, we had a conversation on The International Risk Podcast with Jeff Gothelf. He does a lot of management and leadership consultancy and I think he’s a fantastic leader. And he speaks and writes a lot about leadership. And one of the things he speaks about is humble leadership. And I try myself to learn from all the guests that we have on The International Risk Podcast. And so I started really practicing humble leadership, and I found it so valuable. But it does take courage if you’re in a leadership position of whatever level to be able to practice humble leadership with your team. It’s just this morning, I had a meeting with my team. And I had a plan. And I had something I wanted to achieve and something I wanted the team to achieve. And of course, I think my ideas are fantastic. But I also know that we’ve got as good, if not better ideas within the greater and broader team. And so I presented to the team what I’m thinking, and the outcome I think we should achieve, and I asked the question, ”What do you think?” And it was that standard, awkward, okay who’s gonna be first, who’s gonna challenge the boss. And so I quickly just followed it up with just simple, ”Guys, I’m not sure that this is the best plan. It’s a plan. But I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please come on, let’s tear it apart. Let’s look at what else we can do and how we can make this even better.” And then the floodgates opened. And of course, not surprisingly, the team had awesome ideas that made the plan so much better.

Janie Van Hool 12:00

Well, I love what you’re saying there, Dominic, because actually, one of the things that I wrote about in my book, was my experience of working with leaders over the last 20 years is the that I noticed, one of the common themes is the pressure to solve, leaders feel an underlying and constant pressure to come to be the person that comes up with a solution. It kind of it seems like it goes with the paygrade. Right, you know, you’re really senior, so ultimately, you must know what the solution is. And I think the minute we listen to solve, we’re not listening, because we’ve already got the solution in our mind. So we just then waiting for the other person to finish if indeed we do wait for the other person to finish, and we are very likely to interrupt and then come up with what we think is the is the plan. And actually that can happen. You know, in any one on one conversation, where someone says, Yeah, well, yeah, but you know what you should do? And actually, that’s not really listening. That’s just as my mother used to say. And now you now me conversation. So to hear that you’ve had the courage to say to your team, what do you think? And then listen to their ideas? I mean, that’s, for me, that’s spectacular success in terms of listening and leadership.

Dominic Bowen

But it does take that self awareness. John Gottman, the well-known relationship counsellor talks a lot about that. According to his research, men are solvers, but women want to be listened to. Gottman contends that often there’ll be arguments or there will be problems, and in his research, the wife may come home for work and complain about the day and husband’s instinct will be to respond with, ”Well, this is what you should do… I would have handled this way… What if tomorrow you try this…” When the correct answer, the teacher’s solution would be for the husband to say to the wife, ”Ah, I’m really sorry, honey, how are you feeling? Is there anything I can do? Would you like sit on the couch for a second and let me grab you a cup of coffee and we can talk about it.”

Janie Van Hool

So the listening charity that I volunteer for, we are a listening service for people in distress. So often people are really, really desperate. But one the thing that we’re not allowed to do is give advice and that’s been my big learning is to stop telling people what to do. It’s very funny at the moment because I’m doing lots of interviews around my book, and people always say to me, what’s your one be your one top tip? And then I go against my top tip immediately by saying, stop telling people what to do. And of course, I’m telling them to do that.

Dominic Bowen

You mentioned earlier that you were in Iraq. When were you in Iraq, and what risks were you aware of when you were there? Or, as is very common, what risks did you become aware of after your time in Iraq? What risks did you become aware of that you were blind to when you were there? A

Janie Van Hool

Ah, such a good question. I went to Iraq many years ago, it was 1989. And it was three months after the end of the Iran Iraq conflict.  And we were a small touring British theatre company. It was the most glorious experience. I mean, I’ve never had anything like it. But in Iraq, I was I became aware of the threat of being blonde. I’ve got blonde hair, now assisted blonde hair, and I had never been in such a high risk environment where my looks increased my risk so much. I remember one particular incident in a market where I just had to be bundled into the back of a van by my friends very quickly, because there was a hostile crowd. And so my naivety, I had absolutely no idea of any of the risks and I’m afraid to say I just gone in to Iraq completely blind to the risks.

I always expect the best of people, which is it’s a nice quality. But it does mean that I was a little bit naive. We performed in theaters that had bomb holes in the roof.  Basra was a city that had been severely damaged during the Iran Iraq conflict. And I met a lot of people whose families had been decimated; they’d lost their young sons, they’d lost brothers, they’d lost so many men.

So there was a there was quite a negative energy in Iraq at the time. What I learned was that you have to balance open heartedness with this kind of stubborn naivety. It’s lovely to be open, but you’ve also got to manage the risk, which I’ve always found quite difficult actually. And I think what I often do, as a woman is just pass my responsibility over to the strong men around me. And yeah, I still worry about risk when travelling internationally. Actually, when I travel it is a big risk. And of course, there are criminal groups that will take advantage of many tourists and business travellers who are perhaps blind to the risks or perhaps expecting the best of people when, when that’s not always the case. But risk management definitely is a balance. Because if you if you walk around doing the opposite, and assuming the worst of people and assume that everyone is trying to scam you, rob you, kidnap you, then you’ll certainly miss out on so many wonderful experiences.  

My eldest daughter spent a year living in San Paolo in Brazil. And I was terrified for her, especially with my own early travel experience. She impressed me so much because she’s careful. But not she doesn’t restrict herself. She would go everywhere, but be very respectful of the local community. She understood the local culture better than I had understood. And I think actually, this is a really interesting listening exercise, just the cultural awareness, that doesn’t mean that we have to change and become the people that are around us, but it’s just being respectful of the norms. And, you know, I was very young when I went to Iraq, and I didn’t know any of that stuff. But now because I work internationally, no, just become aware or I research or I askwhat the cultural norms and risks are.

Dominic Bowen  19:28 

I think that that’s really smart. I went swimming with my son and I’m from Australia, and we’re always in the water, and generally there’s no sharks or spiders or snakes or anything trying to kill you in Sweden. So it’s quite safe. And my son just jumped straight off this big pier and into the very dark water. When he climbed up out of the water and said to me, ”Come on, let’s go.” And I said, ”Oh, give me a minute. I want to watch the water.” And he asked why? And it’s probably just a habit. But when we’re in a new spot that I’ve never been to before, I want to relax for a few minutes and take in all the environment. And I think that’s really valuable. If I take that to the professional setting, whenever I get into a new city or a new country, I always – security permitting – make the effort of going for a walk. There’s plenty of emails, plenty of meetings, but taking that time to go for a walk, even if it’s just around where your hotel is or near where your business meetings are is valuable. And working in some of the neighbourhood cafes, to start to feel the culture, to learn more about the people, to talk to the people, is so much better for your situational awareness than working from your hotel room. Experiencing that the mood on the street, the sooner you can do that, the sooner you’re in a position of enhansed awareness.

Janie Van Hool

What I love about that is if we switch that into an organizational context, I think what often happens when we get into senior leadership is that we start walking the streets, you know what I mean? We stop really connecting with people on the ground. In fact, I wrote an article for CEO Yoday a couple of weeks ago, and I and I used a story at the beginning, when I gone to work with an MD at an investment bank, I was chatting to the receptionist whilst I was waiting to go upstairs and have my session. And then she sort of at one point, she just leaned in. And she said to me, ”what’s he like? And I said, ”What’s who Like?”

She said ”What’s the MD like? I’ve never met him”. And I just thought that was absolutely extraordinary, that someone’s so senior has not connected with the person that connects with everyone that comes into the building, you know, and that I thought that was absolutely said everything about the culture. But I do recognize that as you become more and more senior, it’s almost like that, that stuff is told to you, you know, how’s the reception, oh, they’re great, they’re absolutely fine, got a new, you know, office manager or whatever. And that time, and deliberate connection throughout the business is lost. And that’s a risk. Because you don’t know what people are saying about you. You don’t know what your customers necessarily are experiencing? Through the business. I mean, I think the job of a leader is to manage that risk by getting out there and listening, you know, having those conversations where you understand how people are feeling for yourself, rather than just kind of reported in at that endless layers of people.


Dominic Bowen  35:37 

Many of The International Risk Podcast listeners are based in Europe, but they’re also based in the Middle East, in Africa, in Asia, and often the people listening to this podcast are communicating across or to or within cultures that are not their own. So you could have a UK Risk Manager working with an operations team in Nairobi, or conversely, you could have a Bangladeshi Country Director communicating with the headquarters in Germany. You speak about connection and rapport and respect and understanding when communicating. How do you break through these barriers? When you can see some cues? The other person’s not listening? They’re not engaging, or perhaps they’re not satisfied with the message that’s trying to be communicated? What are some tools that people can employ when they’re communicating through and with and across different cultures?

Janie Van Hool  36:28 

I mean, that is both the most massive privilege and one of the biggest challenges, isn’t it? You know, I think we, we should not be afraid of a bit of choreography online. And, and what I mean by that is about asking the other person or people what works for them, because we can’t make it up, we can’t guess and probably the way that we do, it won’t be comfortable for the way that they do it. So Something’s got to give. And I would suggest, for example, if you’re a UK Risk Manager, and you’re working with someone in the Yemen, ask them what’s appropriate? Do they prefer on camera or off camera? Do they prefer 15 minutes, 30 minutes an hour? What feels appropriate, because you can say things like, you know, I would love to find out all about you. But I totally respect that that may not feel comfortable for you. It’s something we do a lot in the UK. So I want to do what’s right for you. Just, you know, even if you email kind of set up like a menu, what would you like, then then you’re starting from a more respectful and inclusive place where people can start to experiment with what works for them.

Dominic Bowen  37:45 

Just imagine if we did that, just whether it’s a new team, or the communicating with people around the world, just asking them starting off with, ”Hey, what works for you? How do you want to do this? This is what I might like, but how do you want to communicate?” That’s so influential.

Janie Van Hool  37:59 

Yeah. And you were just again, it takes a bit of bravery. Because I think we put ourselves under pressure. I’m a senior Risk Manager, you know, I should know this stuff. But why would you? You know, why would you know that? Why is we’re absolutely operating in the dark. So it is very important, just to help each other out.

Dominic Bowen  38:19 

And what actually prompted you to write the Listening Shift?

Janie Van Hool  38:22 

Well, the luxury of time, Dominic, because a lot of my work, almost all of my work is face to face, or has been face to face pre pandemic. And as as the pandemic began, I spent a lot of my time volunteering with Samaritans because here in the UK, we couldn’t go anywhere, we couldn’t do anything. So and I really, a lot of people, I think felt like they wanted to help or contribute in some way. And I was already doing that. So it was a nice way of just spending some time on it, I realized how important it is for people to feel heard during these times of distress and stress. And it’s something that I’ve wanted to write about for a long time. So actually, I had some time and found a publisher. And you know, so it was, it was a faster process than it might normally have been. I was very fortunate in some ways, but also it meant that I, I had to spend a lot of time writing. But it’s been completely fascinating. And who knows, I may or may impose my views in another book in the future because I actually really enjoyed it. It’s a timely book, because the conversations around diversity and inclusivity and equity, the piece around mental well being I think listening is absolutely foundational to all of that, as well as the cultural understanding and, you know, listening rather than talking, she said, talking but, you know, listening is something we’re not taught to do. We’re taught to speak, we’re told to listen, and it’s a skill that actually needs a lot of work.

Dominic Bowen  40:02 

LIstening certainly is a skill we all need to improve on. And when we spoke earlier about the research that indicates that when men apply for jobs, they say what salary they want. Whereas women can often worry about what’s a reasonable salary and how much is going to be accepted, and may often undercut themselves when it comes to salary and the pay differences between men and women. How should leaders be encouraging and supporting more honest conversations across a whole range of both different genders, different cultures, different topics and sensitive issues within their team and within their organizations?

Janie Van Hool  40:40 

Ah, it’s a great question. It’s also cloudy. Dominic, I would encourage leaders, particularly in risk, to take a step into transparency, let’s stop hiding so much of that stuff away, if we really want to be inclusive. If we really want a diverse community, then, you know, we are going to have to be more transparent about pay about working practice, about any difficulties that are being experienced in an among teams of people. And I think that starts with role modeling. So not suggesting that leaders rock up saying, “Morning everyone, I earn $100,000 a year, go me!” But from a process perspective, there needs to be more transparency, I would encourage every leader to become a little bit more comfortable with personal narratives with talking about who they really are, how they’re really feeling, a little bit more openness and vulnerability starts to model the way of this more transparent way of being. And I think, you know, whether it’s humility, facilitation, collaboration, it doesn’t matter what type of leadership you might define yourself as employing. It’s the business of just being inclusive. And open is definitely the way forward, I think we might be a bit tired with this leading from the front in terms of politics and organizational leadership. People are becoming very frustrated with the lack of transparency, so it’s time to bring it back.

Dominic Bowen  43:46 

It wouldn’t be The International Risk Podcast if I if I didn’t ask you one more question. And that is, what are the risks that you worry about when you look at the rest of this year and into 2022?

Janie Van Hool  44:02 

Well, I don’t know if it’s an age thing. I think there’s an awful lot going on. At the moment, I think our biggest risk is linked to what we’re saying about transparency, because I think our biggest risk is the influence of social media, in people, you know, important influences who state an opinion that’s not backed up by evidence or science, and people believe it. It’s a reminder of how emotional we are as people as creatures. And once we see something that satisfies our view of the world, we hook right into it. So I think the big risk is that experts and people who spent years researching and understanding the way forward will not be listened to but what will be listened to is some celebrity who has an opinion, And I think whether that’s climate, whether that’s being vaccinated, whether that’s electing a leader, I think some of the stuff that we see on Twitter, for example, is an enormous risk because people buy into an empty opinion.

Dominic Bowen  45:20 

That’s so true Janie. Only last week, I was running some training and I knew where the attendees were from and what countries they were from. And we had some people from Russia, some people from the United Kingdom, some people from Denmark, some people from the United Arab Emirates. And so not surprisingly, when we got to a point in the discussion, where we’re talking about the risks of gun violence in different countries, I leaned on the statistics – the available crime data from each country – and we played a quiz. It was part of getting everyone interactive, and not falling asleep on the zoom call. So I was asking people, “In what country does someone die every eight hours from from gun violence? Is someone killed every 32 days from gun violence?”  We had a debate and a discussion. And then I brought up the answers, based on the data. And one of the attendees who was living in Russia said, ”Well, you know, they’re just statistics, you should come and live in Russia.” And I agree with him. I said, ”Yeah, you’re totally right. These are just statistics, and living in Russia, and being part of that community, and being there and experiencing the reality of Russia is undoubtedly what is needed to paint the full picture and properly understand the risk landscape. But the data gives us a starting point. And the data gives us an indication if we are confident about the validity of the data, if we can, if we can take it to the point where we consider it a fact, this is the amount of people that are killed by gun violence in Russia and in the UK, it gives us some level of indication about gun violence in Russia versus gun violence in the United Kingdom.”  Data isn’t everything but it is a good start, but there was just a real reluctance to consider there was any value in the facts. Now, if it was because the data was disputed, that would be one thing. But when you can get to a point where we all agree that COVID is real, or we all agree that these statistics about gun violence are relatively real, or the effectiveness of masks or washing your hands, well emotions can become very dangerous when it’s causing us to ignore the evidence.

Janie Van Hool  47:07 

I listened to Professor Timothy Snyder, who I think is a Canadian professor, brilliant, brilliant academic, and he was saying that one of the biggest problems that we’ve got is that there’s no local news. It’s so important that we start to pay attention to what’s immediately around us.

Dominic Bowen  48:06 

Thank you very much for joining me and our listeners for the conversation today.

Janie Van Hool  48:12 

Thank you for having me Dominic. What a great person to talk to you are.

Dominic Bowen  48:17 

Thank you very much Janie, that is very generous of you. And thank you very much for the conversation. I thought it was a lot of fun. I certainly enjoyed it, and I hope our listeners do too.

I really appreciated hearing Janie’s thoughts on listening, effective communication, and the positive impact that brilliant communication has on risk management. And perhaps my favorite idea that he shared was the value of taking a step into transparency as an improved risk management action.

If you enjoyed today’s conversation, please subscribe to future downloads. This is really important for our future success. Thanks so much for listening today. And we’ll speak again next week.

Harriet Tyler  49:01 

You’ve been listening to The international Risk Podcast hosted by Dominic Bowen. Please go to wherever you download your podcasts and give this podcast a five-star review. Your positive reviews on this podcast and subscribing to future downloads is critical for our success. If you enjoyed the show, tell a friend about this podcast. Consider if you know someone that would appreciate or benefit from today’s conversation and send them this podcast right now. Thank you for listening. And join us again next week for your Fix of risk related stories.

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