Douglas E. Noll: “Humans are 98% emotional and only 2% rational”

Humans are 98% emotional and only 2% rational. Their decisions, behaviors, actions, and inactions are all based on emotion, not on rational thought. We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t […]

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Humans are 98% emotional and only 2% rational. Their decisions, behaviors, actions, and inactions are all based on emotion, not on rational thought.

We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?

In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools, and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Douglas E Noll, JD, MA.

Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA left a successful career as a trial lawyer to become a peacemaker. His calling is to serve humanity, and he executes his calling at many levels. He is an award-winning author, teacher, trainer, and highly experienced mediator. Doug’s work carries him from international work to helping people resolve deep interpersonal and ideological conflicts to training life inmates to be peacemakers and mediators in maximum-security prisons.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I grew up in southern California, went east to Dartmouth College for my undergraduate work, returned to California, and went to law school. I clerked for an appellate judge for a year. I then joined a bankruptcy and commercial litigation firm as a young associate. I tried my first civil jury trial, a construction case, 2 months after joining the firm. For the next 22 years, I was a complex commercial and business trial lawyer.

In the mid-1980s, I took up a northern Chinese martial art and earned my first-degree black belt just before my 40th birthday. A year later, I was awarded my 2nd-degree black belt. My teacher called me into his office for a chat afterward and told me I had to learn tai chi. I was a little confused but agreed to study it.

I learned that tai chi is the oldest martial art and is quite vicious when practiced as a martial art. Tai chi also has two paradoxes: The softer you are, the stronger you are. The more vulnerable you are, the more powerful you are.

I did not understand the truth of these paradoxes for several years, but they seeped into me. On a whitewater river trip, I had time to reflect on my career. I decided that being a trial lawyer was no longer my calling. After that trip, I learned of a new master’s degree in Peacemaking and Conflict Studies being offered at one of our local universities (Fresno Pacific University). I enrolled, and my life changed forever.

As I studied the root causes of human conflict and the many ways to work with conflict, I saw the limitations of the law. I observed that the legal system is a robust decision-making process yet is ill-suited to many of the disputes it is asked to resolve. Ultimately, I walked away from a successful trial practice to become a visionary, mediator, peacemaker, problem-solver, and consultant.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

The most interesting and most important story occurred in 2005. I had been called in to mediate a dispute between a divorced couple. The facts were straightforward: Their kids had received a small settlement for an auto accident (18,000 dollars) when they were married. The money had been placed in a minor’s trust until the kids turned 18.

The ex-wife, Susan, had violated the trust by removing the money to pay for her living expenses. The kids, now adults, could have cared less, but the ex-husband, Bruce, was furious. He sued Susan for violating the trust. By the time I was called in as the mediator, they had spent 50,000 dollars in attorney’s fees.

Things were not going well. Every time Susan spoke, she called Bruce every name in the book. Bruce, of course, fought back. The conversation was heading downhill fast, and I was desperate.

Out of the blue, I turned to Susan and said, “Susan, I would like you to listen to Bruce and ignore his words. Ignore everything that he says.”

“Huh?” she responded, obviously confused.

“Yeah, I want you to ignore his words and focus only on the emotions he is experiencing as he tells his story. Just focus on his emotions and ignore everything else. Can you do that?”

“I don’t know. I’ll try,” she replied.

“Great. Bruce, could you start again at the beginning,” I asked.

In a moment, Bruce started up again and blamed Susan for everything that had gone wrong in his life.

I stopped Bruce after a minute or two and turned to Susan. “OK, Susan, tell us Bruce’s emotions.”

“He called me a bitch and blamed me for everything,” she retorted.

“Ignore his words. What were his emotions behind the words?” I reminded her.

“Well…. I don’t know?” she said.

“OK. Let’s try it again. Bruce, one more time, if you don’t mind,” I asked.

Bruce obliged and started over. This time I stopped him after 30 seconds and turned to Susan. ”What are his emotions?”

Susan hesitated. “He’s angry and pissed off.”

“Good,” I said. “Keep going, Bruce.”

After a minute, I stopped Bruce again. Turning to Susan, I asked, “What are Bruce’s emotions, Susan?”

This time she was more confident. “He’s angry, frustrated, and sad.”

“Great. Bruce, continue on.”

I got them into a rhythm where Bruce would speak for a brief time, and Susan would reflect back Bruce’s emotions. Susan became quieter and calmer. She had utterly de-escalated her own emotions as she focused on Bruce.

After 10 minutes, Bruce wound up his story. Susan completed her reflection of his emotions. Then something amazing happened.

Bruce broke down into deep sobs. He said to Susan, “That is the first time you have listened to me in 25 years.” Susan sat there in stunned silence as Bruce cried his eyes out.

When he recovered, I repeated the process with Bruce, labeling Susan’s emotions as she told her story.

Within 15 minutes of Susan completing her story and being “listened” to by Bruce, they settled the lawsuit.

I was stunned! What had just happened? It was like pure magic. This warring couple had finally found peace and closure with each other. I just couldn’t believe it.

Fast forward five years…

A neuroscientist at UCLA put subjects in a brain-scanning machine and showed them very emotional photos. As he watched their brains react, he confirmed that the emotional centers of their brains were highly activated.

He then had the subjects label their feelings.

When the subjects did this, the emotional centers of their brains started to quiet down, and the prefrontal cortex, the thinking center, re-activated.

The study explained why listening to emotions had such a powerful effect.

For the next four years, I practiced and taught this as an essential peacemaking tool. When Laurel Kaufer and I started the Prison of Peace project in 2010, the first skill we taught our students (all serving life or long-term sentences) was how to listen to and reflect emotions.

The results were astounding. These incarcerated people were able to stop violence, riots, arguments, and fights. And, they transformed as human beings.

As the years went on, I realized that listening to and reflecting emotions was far more than just a de-escalation skill. It was a way to develop emotional competency, grow trust, build rapport, and show deep respect.

I teaching leaders these skills. They reported the same results I had seen in prison — teams were far more responsive, loyal, dedicated, and productive when they felt heard and validated.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I use the phrase “Listen Other People Into Existence” as it encapsulates everything that I teach.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Dalton Reimer was my principal mentor and professor while I was studying for my master’s degree. I have to credit Dalton with my profound intellectual awakening. I like to think that I challenged his thinking as well.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?

The most important advantage of having a team physically together for a leader is that the team can be monitored emotionally without much effort. Although most leaders are not skilled at emotional management, grossly apparent problems can be seen and addressed in the same physical space.

On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?

Humans are social animals, and physical workspaces provide human socialization. When team members go virtual, they are not receiving the same level of social interaction, which will affect performance, productivity, and satisfaction. Teams can become dysfunctional if leaders are not paying attention.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Humans are 98% emotional and only 2% rational. Their decisions, behaviors, actions, and inactions are all based on emotion, not on rational thought.
  2. The pandemic has revealed, in my opinion, a fundamental flaw in the basic assumption of business — that people act rationally. In fact, people act emotionally and use rational thought (whatever that is) to justify their actions.
  3. The implication is that team dysfunction, mismanagement of remote teams, and mass resignation is the logical outcome of expecting people to be rational when they are, in fact, emotional.
  4. Influential leaders need to incorporate critical thinking and decision-making skills that account for the emotionality of the organization and its component teams.
  5. Finally, leaders must learn to validate their team members’ emotions before problem-solving.

Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?

I don’t think any technology at the moment can replicate the benefits of being in the same space. However, the rapid adoption of video calls and conferencing has been a significant advance. Of course, video calls have their own problems and issues, but speaking to someone face-to-face is far superior to a phone call, email, or text message.

If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?

I’d like to replicate the open-door office so that people could drop in for a quick chat without the inconvenience of scheduling. Scheduling is essential, but the spontaneity of personal interactions has been lost.

My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?

As I understand the concept of Unified Communications, information can be transmitted and received via multiple media. E.g., voice mail to text, text to voice mail, video to text, etc. In my observation, the more unified communications technology becomes, the less time is wasted moving from one communication stream to another. I think this is a good trend.

The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?

I don’t think AR or VR will change personal interaction much. It may decrease authentic and honest communications if team members hide behind avatars. We need technology that increases transparency between team members.

Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?

The more we can hide behind non-physical communication (i.e., talking to each other in each other’s presence), the more we lose our ability to resolve conflicts and work through relationship problems. It’s so much easier to blow off a colleague with a text insult than actually confront and talk out an issue. We’ve already seen a diminished ability with text messaging. I fear the loss of our limited ability to communicate honestly with each other will only grow. And, I think we can attribute a significant cause of political polarization to the loss of these skills.

So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?

All of my work is now virtual. I conducted my first live workshop in over 2 years a few months ago, which appears to be a rare exception. My keynotes and workshop appearances are almost without exception virtual. Likewise, all of my consulting, coaching, and private training is virtual. It’s faster, cheaper, and more efficient than spending three days on the road. I do not miss commercial airline flights.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?

The emotional data is still there. You just have to pay closer attention. Most information is conveyed non-verbally through eyes, facial expression, tonality, and speed. The words convey only a small part of the information. I have had great success reflecting emotions to my clients and students via video calls. Really, you just have to care enough to pay attention.

In terms of feedback, I use a coaching style that I have found to build loyalty, trust, and safety even in virtual environments.. The first part is to provide a specific example of something the team member did exceptionally well that you want repeated. The second part is to offer one specific suggestion for improvement.

Here’s what it looks like:

“Abby, your design work on the last report was outstanding. I particularly liked your choice of graphics and use of white space. Keep that up. Next time you might consider keeping your color palette limited to not distract from the rest of your excellent design.”

A great leader is constantly coaching and giving feedback like this. A great leader never criticizes or judges a team member. A great leader looks for incremental improvement over a long time period, not immediate and miraculous improvement. Most leaders do not understand how to coach and teach. They revert to what they experienced as children: judgment, invalidation, and criticism.

Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?

In my opinion, the same rules apply to virtual as to physical meetings.

  1. Encourage small group meetings.
  2. Only hold full team meetings when absolutely necessary and then for the shortest time possible.
  3. Break your team into smaller teams.
  4. Prepare an agenda and stick to it.
  5. Allow time for socialization.
  6. Learn how to run efficient and effective meetings. This seems to be a skill that is not taught anywhere.
  7. Meetings have four purposes. Make sure you know the purpose of each.
  8. Share information
  9. Gather information
  10. Make a decision
  11. Deal with an emergency or crisis
  12. Start and stop on time, no matter what.
  13. Create emotional safety for the entire team.
  14. Validate emotions whenever possible.
  15. Be authentic, honest, and transparent at all times.
  16. Model the behaviors you want your team members to emulate.

You might see from this list that it is identical to the tasks a leader would execute in physical space. Because a team is virtual does not mean that a leader can shirk the psychological responsibilities of leadership.

Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Actually, I’m the co-founder of Prison of Peace, which trains life and long-inmates how to be peacemakers and mediators in their prison communities. This project is already international and is poised to expand even further. The ripple effects of Prison of Peace have thus far been significant. I am excited to watch the next chapter unfold globally as we work in some of the darkest places on the planet to teach peace.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My website is https://dougnoll.com

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

Thank you.

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