Are you listening to the noise?

Late night in a hot and sticky Barcelona my colleague and I made our way on foot through the atmospheric bar and restaurant filled streets. It was the weekend and the city like the rest of Catalonia was in the grip of the tension surrounding the 2017 independence referendum. Above us echoed the noise of clattering saucepans as residents standing on balconies made their feelings known through loud metallic drumming. The sound was intimidating. It swirled through the streets somehow developing a rhythm as we passed between neighbourhoods.

Onto this clanging noise we projected our meanings. Are the people angry? Do they want change or do they want to remain part of Spain? Is there about to be a riot? Is the sound a warning to get out of the way? Sounds can often come with no sense attached. They penetrate our brains and have an impact but their meaning is often up to us to interpret.

The following day we presented a workshop at a design conference. At the start of our session noise played again a disruptive role. The audio system played loud videos when we did not want it to. Feedback from microphones deafened participants and presenters. This was irritating. I then used Buddhist prayer chimes to invite people to close their conversations. This was a gentler noise, at least to my ears, and usually penetrated the lively chatter in the room. Noise in this case brought quiet.

What role does noise play in your practice? Perhaps you have not thought about that question before. In your work with people in organisations do you pay attention to the noises around you? What about the noises you make? How does noise aid or hinder good listening and learning? What are the noise levels when you do your best work? Are there steps we can take to ‘manage’ noise to support good conversations? I often play some gentle jazz music as people arrive into the workshop room. It seems to both calm people down, enables them to transition from whatever they were doing before and it’s not unusual for people to gently dance or tap their feet.

Plenty of research points to the struggles children have in learning when there is too much ambient noise in the classroom. Some research indicates that elevated levels of noise in open plan offices hinders work and contributes to employee frustrations. When it comes to working as an organisation development practitioner listening well to both the stories of people and the noise that forms a part of their (and our own) life experience becomes fundamental to empathising with them at a deep level. The noise is not just in the background, it forms part of the context for the work we are all engaged in.

So, what are the practices that will help us “be” with the noise landscape? How can we integrate what sometimes seems to distract or irritate into a richer understanding of organisational life? Are there steps we can take to help shape or even design noise into organisational life that has a positive effect? What might we be missing if we simply disregard the noise?

Are you listening to the noise?