An interview with Dr. Bruno Paul Kahne, trainer, facilitator and responsible of the strategy of Airbus Leadership University. By Paulina Szczepaniak and Łukasz Paluszkiewicz

Bruno, you’re talking on communication, and what project managers can learn from the Deaf community. It is a very unusual idea. Could you tell us, where it came from?

I am a trainer on different topics, including communication. I’ve developed a course on communication using communication models, theories, some games and experimentations. And it was good. People were coming to the course, and they were happy, they were progressing. But one day the sponsor of this course approached me and said he was not happy with the training. I asked him “Why?” He replied that it was not fun enough. Well, I’m not entertainer, I’m a trainer. I am ready to make some efforts, but then the people coming to the course also need to make some efforts. I asked him if he had any concrete recommendation, but he was just critical for the sake of it. So we left in total disagreement. This is the first part of the story.

What’s the other part of the story?

The second part of the story took place a week or before. I had a course on leadership and one guy after the training gave me a piece of paper with the name of a man and a phone number. I asked him why he’d given me that. He answered in a puzzling way that he didn’t know but I should call the number, and I would not regret it. I was rather suspicious about the idea but on the next day my curiosity won. I called the guy. I introduced myself and asked the man if we could meet. That man reacted as everybody would and asked why should we meet? I replied to him, slightly embarrassed, that I did not know, that we had a common friend who thought it was a good idea. And we met a few days later. The man was a manager at Airbus, and he had one child, but after some time his wife got pregnant with a second child. When the second child was born, they felt that something was wrong. After a few weeks the baby was not reacting like all the babies. At the age of two, so quite later, they still perceived that something was wrong with the baby’s behavior. So they went to the hospi­tal. The doctor said that the kid was autistic. The mother could not believe it. The doctor wanted to convince her and prescribed some tests for the child. The test shown that the kid was not autistic, but deaf. This man went back to Airbus and told his manager that he needed to learn sign language to communicate with his child. The company paid a six months course of total immersion with deaf people for him and his wife. After the six months he came back to Airbus and said “I resign, I cannot give my life to Air­bus anymore, because I discovered a world of people who are incredible, that nobody take care of, nobody is helping them to get introduce to the professional world. I want to help them”. But Airbus refused his resig­nation and instead the company decided to sponsor a new program for deaf people, and he would run it.

Fot. Anna Kopeć

The moment we finished the conversation, I realized I did not know what I could do with his story. I told him that maybe one day we would have a conference on the importance of having a personal project, he could be a speaker, as it was really giving him a lot of energy to get up every morning. The two sto­ries collided when I got the argument with the sponsor.

How the stories are connected?

I thought that I will ask deaf people to teach hearing people how to communi­cate more respectfully with each other. I had never met a deaf person in my life. So I called the guy whose name was Francois, and I asked if I could meet in a room two or three deaf people, because I would like to experiment. I wanted to really experi­ence how it is to be unable to communicate with another human being. A few days later I entered a room. There were 3 deaf people – completely relaxed, and me – completely scared. I knew after half an hour that they could teach us a lot. So we started to com­municate, to try to understand the world of the other, to see the differences and step by step we build the whole theory and started to do some trainings. Once we had done that, my boss came to me and said that I should put a copyright on the course. I was convinced that someone else had done something similar before, but when I went the Internet, searching for “learn from the deaf people” the only results I got was “poor deaf people, we are going to help you” but nothing like “deaf people can help hearing people”. That is why I decided to write an ar­ticle and send it to several newspapers. Dur­ing a single night they said they wanted it. One article evolved into a series of articles. After some time I received two e-mails, one from India and another from Canada. Those e-mails really touched me. They said, both of them “Thank you for your article. I’m deaf. For the first time in my life I understand who I am”. It made me cry. It was so strong. Then they asked where they could buy my book. But I did not have a book! And then I received more questions about the book. So I said to myself – “OK, I need to write a book”. I had been working with deaf peo­ple maybe for three years when it happen. I had tons of notes. I took them and wrote a book. This was the story that happened about 8 years ago.

Fot. Anna Kopeć

Nowadays, most of the communication happens with electronic tools. Due to team dispersion and international cooper­ation. Do you have any advice for organiz­ing team meetings or stakeholders meet­ings and how to communicate effectively when meeting in person is not possible?

To my knowledge there’s no study on this topic, but I am convinced that if you look at the number of conflicts someone is having, there will always be a correlation with the type of tools the person is using in commu­nication. The less you use human interac­tion, the more conflicts you have in your life. I have no doubts about it. So my very first recommendation is: whenever it is possible move your bottom and go talk to the people. Because using only e-mail, you can be sure, will get you in trouble sooner or later. But this do not answer your question.

When you have a project you have also money. Most of the time you don’t have enough money, but you do have it. You should have money for your resources, for the flights, and for many other different things. My recommendation, is: if you have, in your project, budget for just one flight or one travel, depending how far your col­leagues are, when would you use it? During the project, most of the people use the flight when they’re in trouble. They use the flight as soon as there’s fire everywhere. I think it’s a mistake. In fact you should take the flight in the very beginning of your project to build trust, to meet people, to put a face on name, to create the link and so on. Only then can you use all the other types of tools like vid­eoconferences, phone calls and so on. Then, it will take less time for the relationship to deteriorate. And then you will feel when it is time to reserve another flight.

According to you, you can’t skip human to human relationship?

No, you cannot. Technology is not yet good enough. I was on the phone one hour ago, I could only hear one word out of two, because it did not captured waves properly. Webex works one time out of two, it takes half an hour to have everybody connected. It is terrible.

Potentially, one day we will be able to beam people 3 dimensions, and so on. But based on the current technology I feel it is difficult. Before looking at incredible technology maybe we should work on the basic tools (webex, videoconferences, etc.) to work properly. Today it’s not the case.

So answering the question, would those technologies one day replace human contact? If you were there in front of me in 3 dimensions but you were only a projection, would it be the same? I cannot tell you. That would be a totally different interview.

Fot. Anna Kopeć

You are also a change expert. We would risk making a statement that communication is key to deliver successful change. What can we do to make the process more effective on implementing the change?

Difficult to answer that in only a few sen­tences. Nowadays everybody is convinced about the need of change, right? That’s a fact. People see change, and they know that change is necessary. Most of the time they want change for the other but not for themselves. The question is how you convince someone that he or she has to change? I think that this is the role of the manager. He or she needs to secure people, make them feel safe.

Why are we afraid of change? Because in fact, there is only one thing human being is afraid of. It is the unknown. If you look at the psychology of human being, we are afraid of nothing. Unknown is the only thing. So when you ask people what are you afraid of, every single time when they are  asked the question, they are pointing at the same area – the unknown. Are you afraid of death? Why? Because you don’t know what is behind. If you would die and come back to life you would not be afraid anymore. You are afraid of delivering the baby? Ok, why? Be­cause you never had a baby. Once you have a baby, OK, it hurts, but then the second one you are having does not scare you so much. And the role of the project manager, or any manager, in terms of change is to step in front of the team and then show them: “look I’m still alive, come”, and another step “look, I can walk. I’m still alive, come”. It’s really making the unknown known to the people and then secure them – that’s it. It’s my way.

And the best way to do this is face to face.

Yes, you need to build the spirit of the team. That is for sure.

Fot. Anna Kopeć

Could you give a few examples that you’ve implemented in Airbus to improve your communication. Perhaps you can share with us some effects.

The biggest change in terms of communication in Airbus, is something we call the hub. We use too many e-mails. We receive too many e-mails, we send too many e-mails. We spend all our life writing and reading e-mails. How can we reduce amount of e-mails while increasing the amount of communication? The idea is very simple.

My dad’s generation, or even me when I was young, we were writing letters, putting them in an envelope and sending it. Then we were waiting for the answer an extra week. Sometimes we were asking a question and when receiving the answer, didn’t remember anymore what the question was (because with paper there is no tracking). The next step was the e-mail. You write an e-mail, you receive an e-mail. The more you put people in copy, the more you have e-mails coming back. Now, look at the next genera­tion, my children for example, they have an e-mail account, because they are forced to, but in fact when I sent them an e-mail, it takes them at least a week to answer. Be­cause they never go to their e-mail box, they don’t check it. But Facebook or WhatsApp… You write them and you get automatically an answer.

The idea is exactly the same. Internal so­cial network, where people can get connect­ed based on keywords, interests and projects. There are a lot of benefits from this kind of solution. First of all, you send less e-mails, you receive less e-mails, but also you can be aware of someone somewhere in the com­pany doing exactly the same as you. That’s what I would say is the biggest change right now.

Fot. Anna Kopeć

We are using a similar tool in my organization, but it is used mostly to show that people are visiting some places, or achieved something, but not for the pro­jects yet. As I understand, you are doing it also for the projects to get the lessons learnt from similar endeavors around the world?

Yes and no. No, in the sense that some projects are confidential. You cannot give out some type of information to everybody, especially in an industry like ours (aerospace). Some projects are very limited in terms of access. But for all the other projects, finding someone who is working on similar things, or is responsible for specific part of the process, yes. In that case it’s the right place to talk. And for people to meet people they have never met before and to work with a virtual team on any topic they want. It’s the place to be.

In your book, Deaf tips, you are giving leaders 12 tips on how they can improve their communication. Which one would you say is the most useful in the business environment?

For me, the most crucial is to remain “simple and precise” in our communication but it’s easy to say but very hard to master. I think they are all important because they show respect, they connect people and they help you to make less mistakes. But the one that we need the most, I believe, in our industries and in our world is to say things in a very simple way, and in a precise way.

To be concise and very concrete. Thank you very much for the interview.