April 30, 2023

Rachel Happe on metacognition, communities of practice, personal knowledge networks, and intrinsic learning (Ep61)

“It’s about respecting the other person’s process. When you’re talking to somebody, if you don’t respect where they came from, their process, and how they got to where they are, you’re not going to have a good conversation.’’

– Rachel Happe

Tim O'Reilly

About Rachel Happe
Rachel is the Founder of professional firm Engaged Organizations. She co-founded the Community Roundtable in 2009 and produced The State of Community Management Report for over a decade. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications including Harvard Business Review.

LinkedIn: Rachel Happe

Website: Engaged Organizations

Twitter: @rhappe

Instagram: @rhappe

What you will learn

  • Significance of metacognition in communication (02:42)
  • Developing metacognition through cultural exposure (03:40)
  • Practicing empathy and curiosity can help people better understand others’ perspectives and improve communication (06:40)
  • The lack of metacognition among people in positions of power and privilege (08:20)
  • Respecting others’ processes in communication (09:41)
  • How community’s collective beliefs and values shape one’s thinking and behavior (12:35)
  • Difference between online social media and community (14:05)
  • The benefits of digital communities of practice for companies (17:13)
  • Incremental learning in communities and the benefits of transparency for organizations (21:11)
  • Building personal knowledge networks and participating in communities (22:57)
  • How people with ADHD love complex problems and synthesis and stress over boredom (26:54)
  • Sensemaking and pattern recognition (29:26)
  • Leadership vs management (31:37)
  • Three pieces of advice on navigating a world of information overload (33:31)


Ross Dawson: Rachel, it’s a delight to have you on the show.

Rachel Happe: Hi, Ross, it’s great to talk to you. It’s been a while.

Ross: It has been too long. You talk about metacognition, actually, a word that I love as well. I’d love to hear what does that mean? And how do you do it?

Rachel: Those are two really different things. But what it is, is being aware of how you think and how it’s different from the way other people think.

Ross: How do you apply that?

Rachel: A lot of people don’t have a lot of metacognition. They really feel the way they think about things is the way everybody thinks about things because they’re in their own heads; so getting metacognition is a little harder than just knowing what it is. Because that means you can instinctively understand that when you use a word, the person that’s listening to you may not have the same experience of that word, or be coming from a different context or different power position or different anything. They might be coming from a different event that totally stressed them out as you’re having a conversation.

There are so many things that can change how they’re thinking in the moment and overall. The way I developed metacognition was that my dad was a very intellectual minister. He didn’t talk about metacognition, but it was constantly a conversation growing up, and I wouldn’t have known the word necessarily, but again, lots of diversity, and lots of conversation about that growing up. But then, when I was in high school, I did an exchange year in Germany, my junior year, so when I was 16, I was in Germany with a host family all year.

And that experience is one of the best. Being in another culture and understanding another culture is one of the best ways to understand that people just don’t think about things the same way. And if you look at the language… I used to laugh because Germans have 20 ways to say you’re an idiot. The French have 20 ways to say I love you. The Danish have 20 words for snow. That tells you something about their culture; so you get that sensibility.

Then when you come back, like when I came back to the US, the US is enormous. Other people in other countries do not understand. The Europeans are like, “Oh, you’re all American”. My friends used to wear cowboy boots and raincoats, the Burberry-type raincoat. I’d be like, “that’s New York and Texas, what are you doing?” They’re like, we’re American. I’m like, nobody in America wears those two things together. That doesn’t happen.

That’s an example. You come back and you realize you’re all speaking English, but you’re not talking about the same thing. There are all these different cultures here. We think we’re talking to each other and understand each other. But often, we really don’t. The only way to interrogate that is to have a conversation with somebody.

Ross: The first instance is understanding that people think differently, and so that informs your communication, how it is you’re taking what they are saying, how it is you phrase or rephrase or adapt what you’re saying, or how you’re communicating to be able to reach a common point. Pulling this to the information, we’ve got a lot of information, and part of that is we’ve got written, we’ve got videos, and a very, very important part of it is in conversation. In terms of how it is we take in information better from the world, and make sense of the world better, how does metacognition help us?

Rachel: It makes us more open to how someone got to the position they’re in. One of the things when I’m talking to somebody, or actually, it’s a game I play with myself too. When I hear something I don’t like, I’m like, how is that the right conclusion for the person who’s making it? How did that happen that they reached this conclusion, and I reached a very different one? That allows you to have a better conversation because you’re suspending the… I would never make that decision because it’s idiotic to what’s going on in their world that’s driving them to see the situation that way. It makes you curious.

Ross: Yeah, for me, one of the implications of that is what I call Richer mental models, how do we have more richness to our models of the world and how it works and how it forms our decisions, and rather than having that singular that we can make it richer by having more facets to that, which includes being able to see how other people look at things, and in which there might be some validity.

Rachel: The layer on top of that, that’s interesting. I studied politics way back. I think of everything in terms of power. People in positions of power and privilege are the least likely to have metacognition. Because they don’t have to live by anybody else’s rules so they’re a bit naive. If you’ve always gotten to walk through the world, saying declarative sentences, and have that taken as fact, why would you believe anyone thinks differently?

Ross: Other than in arguing as in other people think differently, but they’re wrong and you’re right. I think that there is a very tiny minority of, as you say, those in positions of power, who do have that ability. That’s the Gregory Bateson’s multiple perspectives bring wisdom. There are some people in positions of power that have that, and hopefully, a few more than we used to have in the past..

Rachel: Listening to argument, certainly, you have that. It’s very compassionate.

Ross: But I think we can, wherever, whoever we are, we can all learn about… that we can be wiser by being able to appreciate those multiple perspectives.

Rachel: Also it’s not even wiser to me. It’s not. It is about learning, you learn things, but it’s about respecting the other person’s process. When you’re talking to somebody, if you don’t respect where they came from, their process, and how they got to where they are, you’re not going to have a good conversation.

And so being open about that, and knowing your ignorance of that, when you first meet somebody is really helpful, because you don’t lay your expectations on them and you don’t immediately get into an argument.

Ross: In my conversations and interviews for the book, Thriving on Overload, it really came out how much knowledge creation is in conversation. In fact, just right now. I’ve just had some conversations recently and yes, that’s where I have felt that I’ve learned the most. Part of it is listening to what I say as well as what the other person says. But if it wasn’t for the conversation that wouldn’t come out.

Rachel: It’s because you’re meeting each other where you are. You’re asking a question, that’s where you are. I can answer that question to where you are right now. You asked me a question that’s never been asked of me before. Sometimes I think out loud, and I’m like, yes, I think that’s right. But I’ve never articulated it, because nobody’s ever asked before. That’s kind of that mechanic.

Ross: Yeah, and bouncing off each other’s ideas as in oh, that’s an interesting idea. But in fact, that actually brings out my own idea. But this idea of conversational knowledge creation is almost more in conversation than anything else brings us to a community. Your whole career has been based on community.

Rachel: I had a whole career before the community.

Ross: Oh, right.

Rachel: I was in innovation management and product management. But yes.

Ross: But the fact that you got, I think that’s telling that you move from innovation, management to community because I would suggest that communities is in fact, where the most innovation happens.

Rachel: They are the engines of innovation actually.

Ross: So love to hear just any high-level of reflections around the community, as an engine for knowledge creation, or innovation. How we can engage, and how we should be thinking about community or communities to get better at creating our knowledge.

Rachel: So I’ll link it to metacognition, which is, if you live and remain in one community, it’s very unlikely you’re going to have metacognition because they are going to create your truth. Whether it’s true or not, they’re going to create your reality, the way that collective community thinks, really shapes your thinking and your behavior. I think about it as the health of your community is your floor and ceiling, to potential, if they can’t imagine something better than exists in your community today.

That’s what you’re going to aspire to. If their floor is very low, you’re not going to see anything wrong with going down that. You may see something wrong, but it won’t be completely out of bounds. Anyway, that’s fundamentally why I think communities are so important, and knowing how to strengthen communities is really important because learning happens in calm, trusting environments.

This is something people get wrong all the time. Because the interface can look very similar to social media and the emotional reality is completely different. Social media is triggering, it’s anxiety-provoking, and that’s what everybody’s geared toward. In communities, things are calm, and you are calmer. Because you know people trust you, you’re not ready to be attacked or attack somebody. You’re comfortable there. You’ve got a degree of safety. There’s a good community and a bad community. That’s not the case. But assuming it’s a strong community, you’re calm, and being in that community, with that community, calms you down. You can’t learn if you’re anxious. Your brain doesn’t work.

Ross: One aspect of this is communities of practice, which we both know of, since at least the 90s. We’re essentially those who practice and have expertise in a particular domain, together share and learn. There are a couple of aspects to this; one is that we can join communities of practice, be it the inside organizations or outside, or we can even form our own, and try to catalyze our own. I’d just love to hear about this idea of saying, okay, for those who have an area of expertise, how it is that they might nurture or get into communities of practice to help them.

Rachel: I’ve been working with very large organizations for the last two years, building a digitally enabled community of practice network for exactly those reasons, to spread and norm what the organization knows across its employee base, and integrate communities into the flow of work. The only way you can do that is digitally. You can’t come to a conference room every time you have a question, because you may not even be in the same country. It just logistically doesn’t happen so they have to be digitally enabled.

I think digital communities in a practice are the biggest opportunity companies have that they have no idea they have because people are used to email, now they have chat tools, so team chat. The team chat interface may look very similar to a community interface. They’re like, what’s the difference? I don’t know. It’s all chat. But communities of practice allow conversation around a disciplinary. The other thing that it does, and this is often bumpy, is in a lot of companies run by innovation or technology or expertise, the subject matter experts are almost seen as gods, they’re the last word on things; think of surgeons, think of PhDs, think of your architect, your software engineering architects, they’re the ones that are like the final word.

However, the person that’s been at the organization doing work for a couple of years, is going to learn very little about how to do their work from those people. Not because they don’t have anything to teach, obviously, they do, but they have forgotten what it’s like to be two years into the discipline. They tend to answer questions much more esoterically than that person can handle. I run into this problem. I answer questions, and people are like, no, no, I just wanted to know how to set up a discussion or whatever it is, I just need the practical thing.

The best person to teach someone is the person right ahead of them on the path. They’re very good at teaching the person right behind them. Everyone has something to learn and something to teach. But that’s not how, culturally, we view knowledge. It’s very stratified. Communities are almost like matching engines for expertise and learning because someone can ask a question, and again, using the scenario of a younger person early on their path, ask a question, the subject matter expert isn’t even going to spend any time there. It’s not an interesting question for them. They’re going to sail on by.

The person who’s going to answer it is someone who’s like, I remember being frustrated by that, and how I got over that, and they’ll answer. You’ll get the perfect pairing but it’ll be emergent, not planned. That’s a hard dynamic for organizations to get used to as well.

Ross: Yes. For a long time, I think of it as peer learning, where you learn with your peers, rather than from the experts. This is very much the case for the experts as in all of the Uber experts say we’re on the leading edge or want to learn with and from each other and those are their peers and there are people who are earlier in the journey, and they should be learning from each other because they’re learning. They’re able to share how their learning is what they’re learning.

Rachel: The other aspect of learning, and we did it in really big chunks in the past because of physical limitations, we have to go to a school or to a room or to whatever, people learn much better incrementally in the moment they have the need, and they learn much better when they’ve asked for the information rather than being told you need to learn this. Okay, it’s not what I’m thinking about, but okay, right? It really accelerates the ability to learn. In communities, they should be transparent to the rest of the organization. If you ask enterprise search, or you ask somewhere, you ask the AI machine, you will find that expertise and so you’re not having the organization relearn and relearn and relearn the same thing, and so innovation compounds a lot faster.

Ross: In the book, I talk about personal information networks, and perhaps I should have called them personal knowledge networks because it is not so much, well, this has happened, and that’s part of what a network is good for to tell you, oh, did you hear about this? But perhaps more of it is to learn together and we can share it. If you’re an individual not sitting in an organization or sitting in an organization that doesn’t do it, how would you go about building your own personal knowledge network that would support your growth?

Rachel: Before I answer that, I do want to differentiate between a personal knowledge network and the community. Because one, they’re both valuable, but they’re different. One is a hub and spoke, and one is like a mixed scenario where you build truth, you build collective trust, collective truth. It’s more scalable in that way, everybody’s moving along the path together, which doesn’t mean new people don’t come in and out but it’s not centralized in quite the same way.

For me, I’ve been on social technologies for a long, long time. And I’m curious, so it’s a natural fit. I’m curious about a lot of things. I think if somebody followed me on certain networks, they’d be like, what is she talking about? I am here for the community news. That’s part of who I am. But I have a lot of interests. I find innovation is at the overlap of different areas, and the overlap in the Venn diagram is where the spark happens. You need a diverse network.

I follow people who I think are interesting, and I don’t follow people or accounts that just share transactionally. I don’t follow media accounts. I have lists that have media accounts. If I want to know what’s going on in the news, they’re where I go. But that’s not what I’m in a personal knowledge network to do, to just read. I do read plenty. The recommendation and sharing from my network helps point me to things that I find interesting and relevant. But I’m there for conversation as much as I am for just reading content and hearing about things and building relationships.

If you were on Twitter in the early days, that’s probably your experience. If you came on in the last five years, that’s absolutely not your experience. That’s essentially, letting my curiosity lead. The other thing that I do, is unfollow people. If I’m seeing a bunch of stuff in my feed, it could be my best friend, I don’t care. On certain networks, I will stay connected to my best friends but if I’m there to learn, like my Twitter network, and I’m not finding value in somebody’s stuff, I’ll unfollow them because it’s just filling my screen with noise. That’s not interesting. It’s constantly weeding it, adding people that are sharing interesting things or somebody in my network is talking with, and weeding out what’s no longer relevant or interesting to me.

Ross: That does digitally lead us to another topic, which is ADHD. In our previous conversations, you said, you discovered you have that, and as I’ve had with other guests, I’d love for you to share what you have learned which you think might be useful to other people.

Rachel: A couple of things about ADHD is that boredom is stressful. If I’m bored, I’m stressed which people, I don’t think, get. I didn’t get that boredom could be stressful until I read it, and I was like, oh, yeah. It’s not thought of that way. I didn’t think of it that way. But not digging into things causes me stress, doing things repetitively, that’s not my strong suit. I love complex problems. I love synthesis. I’m voracious. I have strong interests, and I can’t pay attention to things I’m not interested in.

I’ve got to be engaged in a topic. When I’m engaged, I’m very engaged. But it’s a little bimodal. I’m either bored, or I’m engaged. In the middle, it can be harder or take more energy to follow up. It’s not that I don’t ever, but it takes a little more energy to do accounting, for example. I still do accounting, but it takes a little more energy to just buckle down.

A lot of people get very annoyed. I’m like a constant idea generator. It’s driven my teams in the past crazy. I know it’s not actually helpful to them because they’re trying to get work done, and I’m like, what about this? What about that? They’re like, no, no, I haven’t finished the first thing. I use my social networks a lot to just play with ideas because my mind is constantly chewing on things. That’s an outlet so that I’m not bothering people who don’t want to be bothered. It’s opt-in. If people don’t like the volume of things that I share or the range of things that I share, they don’t have to follow me. That’s one aspect of it.

The other aspect of it is the things I’m really good at, like synthesis. The more I see, and the broader I pull from, the easier it is for me to see patterns. I’ve gotten to the point where I have a spidey sense about seeing something new that doesn’t fit a pattern. The analyst in me goes, that’s interesting. I’ll bookmark that, and if it happens again, that might be a trend and I go investigate a little bit. I have a very intuitive way of absorbing. It’s almost like the back of my mind is working and all of a sudden, things come together in gel, and I’m like, ah, now I know what’s going on.

Ross: Yes, that’s really an apt description of the synthesis again, as I described in the book. But to your point about boredom being stressful, and you’ve put it admirably fantastically, is the antidote to boredom is not superficial, it’s going deep. I think that the real problem is that people get bored, and then they’re just skimming, skimming, skimming, skimming whereas the real antidote to the boredom is alright, here’s something I can just dive into, and it has to be something that I am passionate about.

Rachel: It’s interesting. I’m not at the Community Roundtable any longer because I had a big hairy problem when I started. It was a hypothesis. I was looking at it and saying, given technology, given organizations, I was a management consultant for a while, and the power dynamics, this is going to disrupt organizational structures entirely, and nobody knows how to manage in this way.

And these community managers online who don’t have any structural control over the people in their community but are accomplishing big things have the answer to that management dilemma, or that it’s really a leadership dilemma. I mean, depends on where you parse out management and leadership.

I mentioned, my dad was a minister. He was a minister in the church that can hire and fire its ministers. He had a very community-centric leadership style. He couldn’t piss people off, and he couldn’t tell people what to do. He had to lead rather than manage in an old-school way. Anyway, I did over a decade of annual research, and it was qualitative initially, and then I got quantitative, and then I was able to benchmark it. I got that done. I spent a few more years there, and I just started getting really bored. I was like, I am done with this big hairy problem. I’ve satisfied the hypothesis that I started this organization for. I’m at this juncture of what’s the next big problem I solve. And I haven’t quite figured that out yet.

Ross: I’ve just been through almost the same process of finding what it is I must dive into. Just to round out, what are three things from your experience that you would suggest to people to help them thrive in a world of massive information overload?

Rachel: Just three things, okay.

Ross: It doesn’t need to be three.

Rachel: I would say, in a world of details, start with a hypothesis or intent. If you work up from the details, you’ll never get anywhere. Hypothesis and an intent can be purpose. What’s the purpose of your interrogations? What are you driving at, figure out what that is. That’s not easy. That’s one.

Two, I think you can’t worry too much about making every second count. You’ve got to be willing to explore. Because the new stuff is in stuff you can’t process yet. And, it’s the trade-off between extrinsic getting something done, and intrinsic learning something. And everybody has a different level of trade-off. But if you’re trying to grow and learn, you need to spend, you need to put some time aside and just explore, without too much direction.

And the third thing is paying attention to feelings and building relationships. I talk about feelings a lot because if you ask people how they feel about something, it really helps. You’re in conflict with them, you see something differently than they do. Asking how they feel about something will more quickly get you to the root cause than just ping-ponging back and forth, or listing the 10 reasons why I believe this.

Say, what do you feel is the right thing to do? Why do you feel that way? Why are you frustrated? What is it about that, that makes you frustrated? And if both parties do that, you can narrow in on the nugget and stop arguing about the big thing, which is much harder to solve. That goes hand in hand with building relationships, so really being attuned to somebody else, being generous with other people, being generous with your time, people are always like Oho, I’m taking up your time and I’m like, I don’t know what’s going to happen. If this falls flat, I probably won’t talk to you again. But I’m open to seeing where it takes us. Because of that I have a huge network of people that I have very trusting relationships with, and I learn things, they tell me things that they would not tell me otherwise, which is also a way to learn.

Ross: Yes, absolutely. That’s fantastic. You’re very strongly aligned around the things I go about the thriving and the synthesis, and the value in the interaction. Thank you so much for your time and your insights, Rachel, it has been a real delight.

Rachel: Thank you for having me. It was fun to chat with you and I think I learned something.

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“An amazing compendium that can help even the most organised and fastidious person to improve their thinking and processes.”

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Chief Technology Office, APAC, Microsoft

Ross Dawson

Futurist, keynote speaker, author and host of Thriving on Overload.

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