The Power of Communities in the Age of Paradox – a talk with Rachel Happe

Tackling the task of finding how empathic communication (in the sense of having a conversation based on the needs and wants of the people involved) build effective communication is hard.

But I am not afraid! I have Rachel Happe to help me.

As you will see by yourself, Rachel Happe is on a mission to find that fractal, that simple behaviour that makes communities thrive. Is it the dialogue? Or is it the importance of the content exchanged? Or maybe the ability to see through all these and look into the heart of what we need and want?

In this third episode of the Intertextual Animal, you won’t find a lot about textuality directly, what you will find is a lot about connections and conversations, about people and the ways we can foster communities by, hold on tight, giving up our agenda to control them.

As Rachel told me:

“All complexities are really simple. Just learn to ask people what they think, what they want, what pressures and anxieties do they have to work under […] and both you and they will learn to distill something they could’t easily say before.”

Enjoy the talk with Rachel and stay tuned for a transcript:

The Intertextual Animal: A Conversation with Rachel Happe [Transcript]


  • The future is about dialogue
  • We keep wanting to provide perfect things, transactions for our customers, ignoring the fact that co-created thing: a conversation, a product, a market, are much stronger than a transaction that I give to you.
  • Communities are really interesting is they are complex adaptive systems. Right, and so they can effectively address complex problems.
    And they can adapt as different problems come up.
  • It’s much more delicate to change a habit, then to give people a new access or new behavior that they didn’t before
  • A lot of business communication fails, is where we start with the present. And we don’t go back and get on the same side of the table as the person we’re communicating with? And say, do we share? Can we both see this problem the same way?
  • “Come to me with solution, there’s not problems.” is a  business trope that is increasing your risk, since not all problems have solutions.
  • Community is the single best thing for SEO because it captures problems in the words that people are using to define them, it helps you sit on the same side of the table. You’re capturing how somebody’s thinking about the problem. And that’s a better stepping off point to write content, then, like your own head, right, like you, you validate that that’s the way somebody thinks about something
  • Complex environments are actually more simple when they seem. Meaning, we just had our like, really crazy conversation about a lot of different things, but at the end of the day, complexity is simple. It’s made up of patterns and fractals that repeat again, and again and again.


Teodora Petkova
Hello with this month’s edition of The Intertextual Animal, a series of talks about textuality, the Web, and the connections we make online and offline. Today, I’m having Rachel Happe with whom I will talk about empathy, and I will try to tackle the task of finding the power of empathy and its relationship to effective communications.

Rachel cofounded the Community Roundtable to support business leaders developing their communities, and social business strategies. She understands how network communications environments work. And not only that, but she uses this understanding to transform the way people work, and collaborate, and most importantly, align their passions and skills and relationships. So very happy to introduce you to her.

Rachel, would you like to say a few words from you?

Sure. I come back to everything is about relationships and trust and the way we communicate with each other. And I’m a big fan of talking to each other, rather than talking or talking with each other, I guess, rather than talking at each other. And so I think the future is about dialogue. And that’s where that intersection of me and you is where interesting things happen, and where innovation lives and where connection lies and where trust lies. So that’s that’s kind of my belief.

We can start with a thread, that is how I imagined us starting our conversation. That is a thread we started weaving some months ago, when we met for a conversation together. And what impressed me back then was that you told me that a lot of businesses are using the benefits of networks without nurturing these networks. And without being aware, or maybe just ignoring the fact that these networks have negative effects too and they need to be nurtured. Can we start from here?

Well, so a part of this was watching the Uber, Airbnb, Facebook, Amazon, all these networked models, that everybody’s looking at and going “Oh, we want to be the network or the, or the Amazon or the Uber” of whatever business they’re in.

And they really have a shine to them right now. And that’s in part because they’ve understood the structural benefits of networks. Meaning, if you aggregate everyone onto a platform, they’re kind of locked in because there’s no alternative. And so Facebook, it’s where everybody is. So it’s where everybody is. So you’re going to go there. So they’ve been able to ignore something, which is because they don’t have competitors yet is that they can be extracted in their business model, meaning they can say: “Come here, we’re going to advertise to you” Or if I’m Uber: “I’m going to pay you the lowest possible wage I can, because we’re the only game in town right now.”

And I look at them and see a lot of risk there. Because they’re not sharing the wealth with the people creating the wealth. So, in Facebook’s case, they’re not paying the content creators for the content. In Uber’s case, they’re not paying the drivers any more than they absolutely have to. So there’s no loyalty and connection, above and beyond the transaction for the people participating in that network. And for me, they’re missing a real opportunity to lock in the relationship, as well as the business transaction.

Which reminds me of something again, you told me that networks based on interactions are stronger than the ones based on transactions? What do you think, if there is a need for a behavior change, where does this start from?

My subtext of my businesses is: control is for amateurs. Because we keep wanting to provide perfect things, transactions for our customers. And we ignore the fact that things that are co-created: a conversation, a product, a market, whatever that thing is, is much stronger than a transaction that I give to you. And you give me a straight value exchange back. So you can give me a Tiffany’s diamond ring, but if I don’t want a Tiffany’s diamond ring, it’s just a transaction.

I can give it back, I can sell it. But if I helped make a ring with you – that has meaning and context for me that’s very personalized. And so I’m a lot less likely to get rid of it. So it’s not a transaction anymore. It’s an experience. It’s something I poured my heart and soul into. It creates a completely different type of relationship, than “I went and paid X money for a car.”

What is stopping businesses from adopting such an approach?

It’s harder. People are messy. Fundamentally, I think the driver is short-term-ism on the financial side. We’re looking for quarterly results. And so we want predictable revenue in the door sooner, rather than waiting until it’s cheaper to get that revenue by cultivating a relationship and waiting until the other person is ready.

Humans are unpredictable. And we’re trying to make business predictable. We’re trying to force outcomes. There’s something called obliquity too, which is related. That is about the linear path to something. That is OK if it’s simple end: e.g. I need to walk downtown, I’m going to walk straight. That’s a pretty simple thing.

But as problems and solutions get more complex, it’s harder to take a linear direct route to them, meaning if I want shareholder value, the straightest, most compelling path to get shareholder value is not to pursue shareholder value, it’s to make my customers happy. And by making my customers happy, they will pay me more, and that will make shareholders successful. But if I just pursue shareholder success, that’s unlikely to actually yield shareholder success, because then I’m going to kind of constantly ask shareholders what they want. And I may ignore my customer. And then customers won’t give me money.

Related, we’re moving into a business environment where all of our problems are complex, rather than complicated or simple. The Model Team was a complicated thing. Production lines work perfectly for that. Climate change is not. It’s complex. No one organization is going to solve that problem.

We can’t operate with the models we have historically used to solve complex problems, because they’re not mechanical anymore. They involve people and how we feel about things and multiple stakeholders and multiple organizations.

I heard this great presentation from Atul Gawande ( He’s a surgeon, but he also speaks to public health these days. And he talks a lot about the culture of medicine and the culture of the surgeons being gods. And he’s like, you know, 50-75 years ago, a specialist surgeon could know everything the world knew about their specialty. And in that environment, they were God, because they knew everything there was to know about that.

And now we know that medicine is more complicated, and more complex than that, and it’s all interrelated. And so that specialty now has to interact with all these other specialties to actually solve the problem. Yet, the culture is one where the surgeon is God. And the surgeon can’t collaborate, because they’re used to calling the shots. But to actually solve the complex problems they’re presented with now, they need to learn to collaborate. And so the whole culture is getting tipped on its head, and strained, because surgeons still have this very egocentric ” I am the final word on everything.” And it’s causing outcome issues, it’s causing performance issues, and expense issues in medicine.

With these moving elements, these dynamics, how do you strategize? How do you target? How do you shoot the moving target?

I think the first thing to grapple with is “We’re in an age of paradox”. Right? So there’s no one answer anymore. We only have a range of options. And when you have a range of options, you basically have to figure out what’s the best option for the group, not you as an individual. If we go back to the medicine – Atul also does a lot of end of life care. And he’s like: “the way we used to treat elderly people is we, by do any means necessary to keep them alive for as long as possible?” Well, now we can keep them alive on a respirator for months and months and months. But that’s not what the patient wants. That’s not what the family wants. And so now we have to talk to the patients about how do they want their life to end. And doctors have no training and talking to patients about that. And it is not a mechanical process. There are a lot of options for how we could treat cancer care.

My job is to help facilitate the conversation, and to help you make the right choice for you. But ultimately, the decision is the patients. Do you want to be aggressive and live as long as possible in a hospital bed? Or do you want to go travel for six months, with your grandchildren, and have the best six months you’ve had, knowing that it’s going to shorten your life?

It sounds like the basics of empathy, again, needs and wants. Is this what you facilitate, what you translate when a business approaches you?

They don’t, they don’t typically understand that that’s the problem that they’re facing.

They don’t get down to the level of like: “we’re not communicating correctly”. That’s not the problem they’re aware of. The problem they’re aware of is: “we’re not innovating fast enough, we’re not agile enough, we’re not collaborative enough, we need to build solutions rather than products”. So. that means we need to work across services and product lines and market teams, we need to streamline the customer experience, which again, involves product and marketing and customer support. And somehow we can’t manage to do that. And so how do you do that?

One piece of that is the getting way down to the conversational level of how do we have that conversation? But then there are also these big structural issues. Like, how do we measure performance. And it turns out, if you go to the senior executive level, we’re measuring performance in very individualized or siloed ways. Back to the “surgeon is king”, we look at the head of customer care. And their whole metric stack is around just customer care. It’s not customer experience, it’s around how efficiently are they delivering something that costs the organization money. That’s the perception of what they’re doing.

And one thing we found in our research, is customer communities have a bigger impact on marketing, than marketing communities. Because it’s a complex thing. If I’m the customer, I don’t care if I’m talking to marketing or product or customer support.

And so customer support communities where peers are helping each other, are generating a lot of leads for marketing.

If you look at the senior executive, KPIs and the metrics they’re being judged by, they’re completely segregated. And so then you have this community generating all this other stuff. And you get into political issues at the very top, because all of a sudden marketing’s a little offended, because customer support is taken away from their efforts, right? They’re stealing marketing support. Because the metrics are fundamentally competitive.

And so everybody says, well, executives can’t collaborate. And I’m like: they’re not incentive to!

The way they’re measured is you individual are in charge of this one little slice. And we’re not going to recognize that the customer could care less about that slice. And so the experience outside of your organization is completely different from the experience inside organization. And in fact, what I’ve noticed is executives are the ones that have the hardest time collaborating. Because of those metrics.

I’m just thinking how are businesses operating with that old framework of understanding customer relationships.

And then everything follows from that, right? Like those metrics, pretty much drive us to have transactional relationships, because if me, the head of customer support, is only being measured on how much I spend per customer, I’m going to spend the minimal amount of time I have to with each customer, to get exactly what they asked for, I’m not going to explore what they didn’t ask for, I’m not going to try and understand the more broadly, I’m just going to have the conversation about what they came to me with. And I’m going to answer their question that even if it’s not the problem they’re having, but they don’t know how to ask it.

With so many threads, where does a community manager come into play?

I feel like one of the reasons communities are really interesting is they are complex adaptive systems. Right, and so they can effectively address complex problems.

And they can adapt as different problems come up. And because they’re not relying on one bottleneck, whether that’s one person or one function, they can be effectively, on buds, persons on buds roles, if it’s an external community for all customers. A customer will come, and maybe they they’re trying to validate and they’re trying to figure out if the product works for them. They’re hearing from a range of different customers who they trust more than the company anyway. And they can self validate. And then maybe they buy the product, and they have an issue with it well, that they’re kind of getting around the bottleneck that the organization has created for them, and getting a better experience for it.

Community managers then are primarily tasked with place and space making, meaning creating a environment by which that can happen in a trusted safe way. So making sure there’s not spam and trolling in that environment. So people don’t feel like if they ask a question, they’re going to be attacked for.Making sure they’re getting answers from someone, not necessarily the community manager, but making sure someone is answering those questions for them. There’s a whole conversation in the community space, it’s not that different from being the mayor and the police chief of a town, right, like, you’ve got your moderators, which are the police, and you’ve got your mayor, who’s creating the structure by which the community can thrive. But it’s all in the digital realm.

There’s very interesting, but that’s customer-wise. What about the community manager into the team? What do they do? What bridges do they build?

They do something similar, but their role is slightly more complicated. Because with customers, customers haven’t had access. So they find the communities really helpful, because it’s giving them something they didn’t have before. With employees, they already have a way to do their job. And they’re under an employment contract. So they don’t want to do anything that’s going to get them fired. Or even, like put a bullet on their back, or a target on their back. Because like, I don’t want to stick my head up and like make waves because that just gets me unwanted attention internally.

And so the internal community managers are fighting habits and routines that are really structurally reinforced. And so the internal community managers need to understand a lot more about workflows, structures, culture, how to really slowly adapt behaviors in a way that doesn’t upset the apple cart too much. As it happens. They’re getting culture change, but slowly and co-created so that nobody gets so off, kilter or off, like the power structure kind of changes as you include more people as you allow employees to co-create. And so everybody needs to get comfortable with that power shift.

So you can’t just kind of flip a switch and been like, we’re all gonna just mix it all up today. And in fact, that won’t happen. Because people, again, no, they can be fired. So nobody wants to upset the internal culture that much, generally speaking. So it’s much more delicate to change a habit, then to give people a new access or new behavior that they didn’t before. If that makes sense.

It does. Would it be an exaggeration to say that community managers work through empathy and dialogues.

No. This is exactly what they do..

And how do you translate this into things that can be measured?

You can measure the behavior, you can measure the behavior change. And so if I am really good at empathy, I can understand what somebody is trying to do. And help them understand how to do that better. And make sure it’s rewarded socially.

Right, we’re kind of constructing and hand-holding people to show them a new way of doing something. And the idea is that you’re doing that for one person, and then a set of people. And then you’re getting to inflection points in the network where enough people are doing it a new way, that they’re starting to bring other people into the fold, because they’re like, this is a much better way of doing this then emailing 20 people, for example.

You know, if I work out loud in a transparent environment, I connect with people I don’t know that have a better answer for me, then the 20 people I happen to know that I could email. And so it’s really, for the community manager, it’s really about understanding the context of how people are working. And also appreciating where they’re feeling anxious, or fearful, and not pushing them too far too fast. Just slowly nudging them into better ways of working.

I feel I need that method for making people write more. People within corporate environments.

Well, so this is the problem, you can’t make them. You have to inspire them to write more. And so then part of like, community management is making things fun. Like, right, like a little fun, a little exciting. You have to make set it up such that people always feel like they get more out of something that they put in.

See, there’s a method to this, it’s not only about the intuition.

No, it’s not just about intuition, right. So example, and this is the example I give a lot. In our community we do something every week cold, called a “workout loud thread”. What we’re asking people to do is just share three things, three priorities of yours this week: e.g. how long they’ve been on your task list, don’t share anything about the mess, just like what are you working on this week? And we asked them to do that, for you know, it’s a well known productivity, like write down what you want to do, you’re more likely to do it. It’s also like, we say, you know, so so the rest of the community can get to know you kind of share what your work on. The hidden objective there, though, is that we’re orchestrating serendipity. Because what happens is, somebody says “Well, I just finished a training module or a white paper or whatever”. And somebody else comes along and says “Oh, my God, that’s been on my to do list for three months, and I can’t figure out how to do it. Could we talk?” And more often than not, the first person will share their work, save the second person weeks of time and help them see how to do that. And so, all of a sudden, for a simple five minute, here’s what I’m working on this week, all of a sudden, every few weeks, I’m getting a huge bump in productivity.

Yes, it is. That why social media, in its beneficial side is good – because you’re somehow thinking out online.

And you’re getting immediate feedback. And so, you know, in the old world, I remember my 20s – you do a higher presentation deck for a client and you give this entire draft to your boss, and they’d redline the entire thing. And then you’d spend almost as long redoing it. And now, I refuse to work that way. Right? I write research, I write all sorts of things. But I, first, I’m doing this now with this year’s research. I want to nail the key findings and how I frame those. Before I write anything. I’ve looked at all the data, I understand kind of what I want to say, but I haven’t written anything down in terms of like a draft.

If the key findings don’t resonate in the right way, or like aren’t saying the right things, the audience I want to talk to, or they’re, they’re hearing that in a way that I didn’t intend, well, then, all that writing would have to be thrown out. And so I’m not going to waste my time writing stuff that might need to be thrown out because I got the key message wrong. So I get the key message wrong. And then I outline the narrative. And then I go back and say: does this narrative make sense? And they go: “No, like, how do you jump from here to there?” “That doesn’t make sense.” And I say: “Okay, well, I need to fix my narrative.” And now I will write it out. But if I did all that work, and the narrative was wrong, and the key findings were wrong, people couldn’t even articulate what was wrong about. Because it so complete, that they’re like, this doesn’t make any sense, but I don’t know what’s wrong with it. It just doesn’t flow for they tell me it doesn’t flow? And I am like: what does it mean? And so it’s a much more agile way of working, but I think large swaths of people don’t want to expose incomplete work, because they think that will make them look bad. And in fact, sometimes it does, because their bosses judge them very harshly.

They are being vulnerable.

Yeah, they’re being vulnerable by saying: “I don’t know if I have this right. Let me know what you think.” And in in hostile or in transactional work environments. their bosses don’t have a collaborative gene. And when presented with something like that, they’d be like, it’s not even close to done like, “Why are you showing it to me?”, “Go back and finish it, and then show it to me?” And they don’t understand the value and the time you would say, on collaborating on unfinished work.

Speaking of this, of you creating that, because it is a text, right? What are the building blocks of a clear communication in a text?

Narrative. Right? And my favorite narrative is, because it’s such a human narrative, past, present future.

What’s happened to get us here? What are we doing about it? And and what’s, what’s next? What does that going to look like, if we do this about it? And where I think a lot of business communication fails, is we start with the present. And we don’t go back and get on the same side of the table as the person we’re communicating with? And say, do we share? Can we both see this problem the same way? Never kind of connect on that. And so then we’re offering solutions, but we haven’t agreed on the problem.

We’re trying to frame the solution before we understand the problem.

So in understanding the problem, you’re getting the clear communication. In having conversations about the problem?

Yeah. So but that works in an email to, right, like it works down at the like dialogue level, which is, you know, like just one or two sentences. or example, here’s the thing we’re doing. Just confirming that you and I we want to chat on the 25th, right? This is the thing we both want to do. And we want to chat about this thing.

Recently I was chatting with somebody about this trope that executives are like: “come to me with solution, there’s not problems.” And I’m like, well, not all problems have solutions. And so if you don’t want to hear the problems, you’re just increasing your risk. And to, if you and I see the problem differently, no solution is going to solve that. Aligning on the problem is really important, or opportunity, and may not be a problem that may be opportunity, but like whatever that is, like what are we doing here? Why are we chatting? And I think people forget that all the time. And so then if you forget that it’s really easy to get the solution wrong. And then you’re sharing a vision of what the solution will do, that the person you’re communicating with, doesn’t care about.

Back to Tiffany’s diamond.

Yeah. Like, if I don’t want a diamond ring, it can be the nicest diamond ring. I still don’t want it. And probably maybe not from you.

It is it is a little bit like flirting and marriage, right? I’ve had all sorts of I mean, I’m sure you have too, but women get propositioned all the time without any alignment, that they’re into the proposition. Right? And you’re like, wow, like I said, I need my own business. And you swoop in, like, you’re the solution to my problems.

I want to wrap up this wonderful conversation with an epilogue, I was imagining. I feel like there is something really close between community management and content writing, it might be me. But still, if you and me were to design a framework, which would enable the community manager to feed the content writer with content or something like this… Let’s start imagining.

I had this conversation with my clients all the time, which is, community is the single best thing for SEO. And the reason is because it captures problems in the words that people are using to define them, it helps you sit on the same side of the table, instead of writing this piece of content around the imagined problem that you haven’t, like, so community managers can feed. And if you have a good search engine, you can see what everybody’s searching on, that’s not returning a result as well. And so that’s a great opportunity for developed content, because the community isn’t generating it for people. In both cases, you’re capturing how somebody’s thinking about the problem. And that’s a better stepping off point to write content, then, like your own head, right, like you, you validate that that’s the way somebody thinks about something. So yes, I absolutely agree.

We can design a quick framework for connectedcommunity content 🙂 Is there something I didn’t ask you?

Oh, I don’t know, I think we kind of got down some interesting rat holes. I think the thing that I always try and remind people of is: complex environments are actually more simple when they seem. Meaning, we just had our like, really crazy conversation about a lot of different things, but at the end of the day, complexity is simple. It’s made up of patterns and fractals that repeat again, and again and again. And I feel like because of the way we think about measurement, and what we look at, we get the fractal wrong. And so we see this complicated landscape when it’s not that complicated. We focus on the content of the dialogue, and we focus on the transactions, and that’s not the pattern that repeats.

Every time we have a conversation, it’s about something slightly different. If we’re focused on the content, we’re never going to see the same thing twice. But the behaviors we see again, and again, me asking a question, you responding, you asking a question, me responding, that pattern happens over and over and over and over again. So with my work, I really try and focus on what’s the behavior you want to see. And if you get the behavior, right, the outcomes will come. And once you start zeroing in on that simple behavior, managing the community, or managing a complex environment gets much simpler. It’s not a moving target. It’s always looking at the questions and the answers and sharing content and reading content and responding to content. There’s a set number of behaviors that just happened over and over again. And so it simplifies everything. Because really, I’m just trying to get people to ask more questions.

What is the fractal a community is made of?

Those behaviors, like it’s the validating you, saying: “that was a great idea” That’s a behavior I want to see happen over and over again, I want people to share their thoughts and their content. I want that to happen over and over again. I want people to ask questions.

People are horrible at asking questions, the better you get at asking questions, the better the innovation, the better the collaboration, the better all these complex outcomes.

Could it be then the fractal of content is interaction?


Okay, if you know of more fractals, I will be happy to hear them.

One of them is like exploring behavior, versus the simple question and answer, it’s the paradoxical exploration of: “I have this problem, what are all my options? I don’t know the answer. I don’t even have a gas at the answer. Help me, help me figure out what the question is.”

The age of paradox.

Yeah, that behavior is really, really critical. If you’re looking towards the future and innovation. People have to be able to distill something they can’t say easily yet. You have to do dialogue to refine this vague idea into something really specific.

It started to sound alchemy-like…

It’s just talking to people though. At the end of the day, it’s just being able to be a good conversationalist. All of this complexity is really simple. Learn how to ask people, what they think,

And what they need…

And what they need, and what their life is like and what context and pressure and anxieties they’re working under.

Thank you for beautiful dialogue. Stay tuned and I will see you in our next episode of The Intertextual Animal. Bye bye.

Thank you, Teodora.

Transcribed by [Big thanks to the people of otter who made transcribing so easy!]

The Power of Communities in the Age of Paradox – a talk with Rachel Happe

by Teodora Petkova time to read: 22 min