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Leverage the space: Esther Derby

Michael Hunter


Welcome to the Uncommon Leadership interview series.

Today I’m talking with Esther Derby.

Esther has been called one of the most influential voices within agile communities when it comes to developing organizations, coaching teams, and transforming management.

She helps people identify the visible—and sometimes not-so-visible factors—within their environment that contribute to the problems they see, so they can adjust the environment and work more effectively together.

And, maybe I should mention that I’m Michael Hunter, with Uncommon Teams.

I first met Esther through one of the many Jerry Weinberg conferences, forums, workshops.

I have experienced her leadership and mentoring and assistance in finding the not-so-visible aspects of things. Through many of those, without a doubt, Esther, you have been a key influence in my journey to understanding and leading uncommonly.

Esther Derby 1:13

Well, thank you for telling me that.

Michael 1:17

Welcome to the interview series.

Esther 1:19

Thank you. I was trying to remember how long ago we met. It was a while back.

Michael 1:25

2006 probably. When I first ran into the “Jerry Weinborg” clan.

Esther 1:37

I don’t think of myself as being absorbed into the Borg.

But I did work with Jerry on various ways for a long time and certainly he influenced me a lot.

Michael 1:49

I have a hard time imagining anyone who’s spent more than two minutes with Jerry not being impacted by him.

So, as you, Esther, reflect on your journey to seeing people as people, learning to leverage the unique gifts each of those people brings, when did you first recognize this might be a valuable approach?

Esther 2:18

Well, I was not born into it.

I grew up in a family where conformity was valued and obedience was valued.

Having kind of a logical bent, that didn’t help me move in that direction.

It was probably not until my 30s, when I was a manager, that I really realized that, if you want to get things done, you have to work with what you’ve got with the people.

And, of course, I was promoted into management because I was good at working with code and finding problems in the code. Which is not the best skill set to be a manager.

So, I had to learn that.

Once I started learning it, I started noticing that, “Hmmm, my life is working better,” which made me want to learn more about it.

Michael 3:47

Was there a specific time that comes to mind of when you really realized this is something you need to learn more about?

Esther 4:09

It was sitting in the company cafeteria at IDS, talking with Jerry about one of the challenging personalities that we were both dealing with at the time. The project he was there consulting on and I was part of.

He pointed out to me that there were more options for action, the more you understood how people in general work and how specific individuals work.

Michael 4:51

What tools did you learn from him that helped you get started on that?

Esther 4:57

I think the most one of the most influential tools for me was learning about Virginia Satir’s ingredients of an interaction, which says that there is a space between intake and response.

During that space, we make meaning of the sensory input we’ve received.

Then, we have a cascade of responses that we feel, based not on the external event, but on the meaning we make of it.

And then we have feelings about our feelings.

We may feel, “Oh, I shouldn’t feel that way.” Or, “ I should be able to figure that out.” Or whatever.

And then, we have rules about what we’re supposed to comment on and what we’re not allowed to comment on.

Filtered through that we make a response.

Learning about that space, and what happens during that space, made a huge difference in my life.

Because it gets you out of reaction mode most of the time.

Sometimes you still “zzzzp” through that so fast that you just respond.

But, if you can find that moment in there between the stimulus and response, you have choice.

Michael 6:16

What helps you find and then make use of that space?

Esther 6:25

Years of practice.

Our minds are meaning-making machines.

They work really fast.

We just spin through that.

Many of life’s problems come from people making up a story about what’s going on and then responding to that story and getting themselves all worked up about that story.

So, it has been practice. “I’m having a strong response here. What’s it about? This is what meaning I’m making. Can I have a different interpretation of that? What’s going on inside me that is leading to this response I’m having to this external thing?”

Most of the time, we’re close enough that things work.

But, sometimes we are way off.

Then we really need to recalibrate.

Michael 7:35

Do you have any tools or tips for noticing that things have gotten way off, and for helping things get back on track?

Esther 7:49

The interaction model. You just kind of work your way back up the stack.

You check in with yourself.

“How do I feel about the way I’m feeling? Why am I feeling this way? What story did I make up about this?” And then, “Did I hear it correctly?”

You can check out all of those things.

It’s easy enough to say, “I heard you say this, did I hear you correctly?”

Sometimes it’s just a matter of you didn’t hear correctly, and you can straighten things out there.

Sometimes it’s a matter of saying, “This is the meaning I am making of what you said or what you did. This is how I’m interpreting it. Is that what you intended?”

Then you can get things back on track.

So, I work that stack.

And have the awareness to know that there is that space.

I don’t do it perfectly. I don’t think anybody does it perfectly. But I’m better at using that space than I was 40 years ago.

Michael 9:10

Do you find there’s much difference between using that space when you are one end of the conversation versus using that space when you see it happening? As an observer of some other conversation?

Esther 9:32

Well, I have control over me.

I can always slow myself down and check things out.

When I observe it happening with other people, it’s still possible sometimes to say, “Hold on, I wonder if we all heard the same thing.” Or, “Hold on, I understood that differently. Let’s check it out.”

That’s easy enough to do if things haven’t gotten really, things haven’t escalated.

That’s easy to do before things ratchet up.

“Hold on. I wonder if heard the same thing.” Or, “I understood that very differently. Let’s check it out.”

Michael 10:25

Are those the same tools you use when it does ratchet up, to bring things back down?

Esther 10:32


It helps to get things a little less hot before you start applying them.

And get permission.

Michael 10:50

How do you get that permission?

Esther 10:52

You ask for it.

Michael 10:54

“May I have permission to slow things down here a bit?”

Esther 10:58

It’s just a whole, “What’s happening here? What just happened here? Can we take a little break? Go get a tea? Go take a little walk? Then come back and try to deconstruct what happened?”

Most people will say, “Yes”.

Most people won’t say, “No, we’re going to duke it out right here.”

Some people will, but most people don’t.

Michael 11:31

Part of that interaction model is delving into the feelings we’re having about what we’re hearing and the feelings we’re having about those feelings. Some of the people I work with have explicitly told me, “Look, Michael, I went into software engineering so I don’t have to deal with emotions.”

Esther 11:58

Good luck with that.

Michael 12:00

That’s sort of what I say back. “How is that working out for you?”

When you run into people like this who need to delve into these emotions to deconstruct what’s going wrong in a conversation, who are resistant to delving into those emotions, do you have some strategies to help you out with that?

Esther 12:31

I don’t force them to go into the emotions.

I may start with, at the top of the stack, “What did you see and hear?”

Get the data.

“What did you see and hear?”

Sometimes that’s enough to get things back on track.

Then you talk about, “What meaning did you make of it? If you try this different meaning on, what other options appear to you? Do you respond to it differently?”

 I might not say, “Do you feel differently about it?” I might say, “Do you respond to it differently?”

That may be as far as we need to go.

Very, very often it is.

But I also went into software because I didn’t want to deal with emotions.

But you know what, they are an important part of who we are as humans.

They are a huge part of the way our brain functions and the way we make decisions and the way we navigate life.

Michael 13:36

And when we repress them, my experience anyway has been, they tend to come out anyway. In probably not the best forms. At least, in embarrassing fashions.

Esther 13:53

Yeah, they come out one way or the other. Trying to ignore them doesn’t make them go away. But it does strip away a lot of the richness of life.

Michael 14:21

I like that phrasing, “the richness of life.” I don’t know many people who, if I asked them, “Would you like to reduce the richness of your life?” that they would answer, “Yes.”

Esther 14:37

I don’t think many people would. Although their definition of richness might be different than mine.

Michael 14:43

It probably is. Almost certainly. Which is fine.

That gives me another way to approach touchy subjects like emotions without using those maybe triggering words “emotions.”

Esther 15:05

I am rereading a book called Emotional Agility by Susan David.

Her work is really congruent with a lot of Virginia Satir’s work, which is my training.

Her use of agility has nothing to do with Agile Software.

That book really talks about not being hooked or ruled by our emotions.

I think that’s what a lot of people are afraid of.

They’re afraid that if they let any emotion in, they’ll be out of control.

But our emotions are information about how important something is to us.

And that’s necessary to navigate life.

We aren’t there. Just like thoughts aren’t commands, emotions aren’t commands.

They’re information.

So we can deal with them, which is, in some ways, a very logical way to think about it.

Michael 16:40

Which is maybe another useful approach for the big subset of engineers who really enjoy data and digging into the data.

You’ve got this whole rich set of data masquerading as emotions that is sitting there just begging to be investigated. Let’s dig in and see what happens.

Esther 17:00

Your emotions are my data, right?

If I see you having some big emotional response, that’s data for me.

I may not know what it means until I check with you.

But it’s certainly critical information for navigating relationships or in a group situation.

If one person is saying “Yes, we decided to this,” and everyone else is frowning and saying “No,” that’s important information about that decision. Or they’re frowning and shaking their heads “No.” That tells you something.

Michael 17:51

Sounds like the Interaction Model and other Virginia Satir tools are an important part of your toolbox. Are there other ways that you’ve leveraged these, beyond sort of debugging conversations, interactions?

Esther 18:16

That’s a primary way I use the Interaction Model. But I certainly draw on other insights from Virginia Satir as I navigate life in general.

Michael 18:40

What other tools are your favorite or most often utilized as you help people find those invisible things that are affecting their ability to accomplish the work they’re trying to accomplish?

Esther 18:58

One thing about having been around for a while is I have a lot of tools and a lot of models.

So, I’m not stuck with just one view of things.

I can look at things from a bunch of different angles.

One I use a lot comes from Glenda Eoyang‘s work. Have you heard of Glenda Eoyang?

Michael 19:20

No, I haven’t heard of her.

Esther 19:23

Her body of work is under human systems dynamics, complex adaptive systems work. She has a lot of interesting tools that are quite practical.

The one I go to most often is Containers, Differences and Exchanges (CDE).

That says that in any complex adaptive system, these things are always present.

They contribute to the patterns you see.

We can see the patterns.

We experience the events.

If we pay attention, we can see the patterns of events.

Often people don’t. They just are aware of the stuff that’s coming at them all the time.

But if you pay attention to the events over time, you can see patterns. Those patterns are driven by structures. The CDE is one way to get some sets of those structures.

Containers are anything that holds attention.

It could be physical, like a team room or being around a table.

It could be organizational, like a department.

It could be psychological, like your affiliation with the school of economic thought that you studied in college because you went to a particular university. It could be psychological or affiliative, in that sort of way.

Team membership is a container. Being on a team.

And so, you look at the strength or permeability of those containers, and you look at how they might be affecting patterns. That’s often very revealing.

A lot of times, when people talk to me about teams that aren’t functioning very well, I start asking them questions that reveal various containers.

It turns out that the team container has the weight of spider silk, and they’re pulled in many, many different directions by other containers.

So, then, what do you do?

You don’t send them off to team building.

You start seeing if you can strengthen the team container.

The other one, differences, is just that. It’s the differences between containers and within containers that lead to patterns of behavior.

High difference can be very functional, or it can lead to all sorts of problems.

You have to look at, is the pattern fit for function. Then, you can amplify or dampen differences.

Some differences we can’t easily change, or change at all. Like age differences, we can’t change.

But we can change differences in people’s level of knowledge.

We can change differences in how people are aligned towards a goal.

We can find common ground.

You work with the differences.

Differences are actually really fascinating.

And that’s one of those things that, if you’re just looking at, “Oh, well, these are little boxes on an org chart, and we do not care about emotions here.”

Looking at the differences is often super revealing for things that are going on.

The third is exchanges, which is this flow of value between agents and containers.

I find this model is simple.

It’s relatively easy for people to grasp.

It gives them a different set of options.

Like in the team example I mentioned, a lot of times when teams aren’t functioning well, the first answer is to send them off for some kind of collaboration training or some kind of team building event.

But if they have no team container that’s anything but a box on an org chart, or if they have high difference and there’s nothing that’s helping focus their attention, no collaboration workshop or team building thing is going to really help.

Michael 23:54

What are some ways that you strengthen that team container?

Esther 24:00

Well, it depends on what’s going on.

It could be reducing some of the other pulls, if people are on multiple teams, helping people just be on one team can strengthen that container.

Having a clear and compelling goal can strengthen the container.

Having clear team membership can strengthen the container.

Having agreements about how we’re going to act together, beginning to form some kind of team identity strengthens it.

Sometimes just spending more time together can strengthen it.

There’s all sorts of things you can do, that generally are not as expensive as sending people off to a team building event, that are going to be more effective.

Michael 24:51

Have you found that team container strength or permeability to be increasingly problematic over the last few years as people have been less and less working in person?

Esther 25:13

I think you have to pay more attention to it, because the physical container of a team room is gone. And there’s a different set of pulls on people. But you can definitely form a strong team container with a remote team.

Michael 25:40

I agree.

I find people get caught up on, you have to be colocated. Meaning, you have to be physically within touching distance of each other.

Physical colocation can be an important factor.

But more important, is a social and maybe psychic, for lack of a better word, colocation. Where if you feel connected with each other, you’re collocated, even if you’re on multiple different continents and can never get together in person.

Esther 26:25

You may feel connected around the challenge the team is facing and that can actually be a really strong connector.

Do you remember the Chilean miners who were, there was a mine disaster in Chile where they were, where they were stuck underground.

They brought together people from all sorts of disparate disciplines—so high difference—who didn’t know each other before—so low connection.

While they were in the same space, what really got them to cohere and coalesce was that goal they had.

In that case, their shared goal was around that physical thing.

But many teams have a goal that can be extremely compelling that doesn’t require them to be together.

I think a lot of companies underestimate the effect of a compelling goal.

They think about goals as “release on this date” or “reduce cost by this much” or” have this much market share.”

That may be compelling if your bonus is riding on it, but it’s not emotionally compelling in a way. Whereas solving particular problems for particular customers might be. Or solving a particular technical challenge might be. Or overcoming some problem that has existed for a long time. That might be super compelling to people.

That can contribute greatly to that sort of bond that people have when they’re really on a team that’s working well, that connection that you talked about.

Michael 28:41

Thank you. You’ve given us a number of new tools, approaches, concepts to consider as we’re learning how to build our own uncommon teams.

What else should I ask you today, Esther?

Esther 29:04

I don’t know.

I love to ask people that question.

But when they ask me, it’s like, “Well, I don’t know.”

You can ask me what I’m reading.

Michael 29:20

What are you reading, Esther?

Esther 29:24

In addition to rereading the Emotional Agility book, I’m reading some medieval history.

This particular one, I think, is called Power and Thrones.

I’m very fascinated by medieval history.

Because echoes so much in our current lives.

I really like the approach that some historians take that it’s not teleological, it’s not like there’s a logical progression here where we look back and we can see the common thread.

Things come from, they don’t go to.

Looking at how conditions existed, that enabled certain things to happen and coalesce, and how that then affected other things and allowed other things to happen and coalesce, is super, super interesting to me.

For example, I was just—I say I read but mostly I listen—I was just reading about, we all have this conception of medieval knights in their armor with their huge lances. But that was only able to emerge because of two other technologies, which are a certain type of saddle that helps stabilize the rider, and stirrups. Which stirrups weren’t apparently common until…I didn’t retain the date. But, they were technological innovation. They haven’t always been around in Europe, or the rest of the world. So that’s super interesting to me.

I think it’s really relevant to looking at organizations, because the past is always in the present.

Michael 31:27

Yes, thank you.

What would you like to leave our listeners with today?

Esther 31:36

A challenge to sit with emotions and to learn more about your emotions and how they help you in life. And just to explore that richness.

Michael 31:55

Even those of us who went into engineering to not deal with emotions.

Esther 31:59

Like me.

Michael 32:05

We do it on our own. Then we can ease into it, rather than being forced into it when they come out in some awkward situation.

Thank you.

What’s the best way to connect with you, Esther?

Esther 32:23

Well, you can always reach me by email:

I am on Twitter, for now: @estherderby.

I’m also on Mastodon. Actually, I’m on the Octagon server. But you can probably find me, Esther Derby.

Esther Derby on LinkedIn.

And Esther Derby Is Here on YouTube.

Michael 32:52

You have a podcast as well, correct?

Esther 32:54

Oh, that’s right.

I have a podcast: Change By Attraction, which is inspired by my book. Which I just happen to have here just because it’s always there.

I started the podcast, as an outgrowth of the book, but it certainly covers things that are not in the book.

Anything related to change, how to bring about change.

Things that will, if you can pull them off, will have a cascading effect for change.

I have a lot of fun doing that podcast, Change By Attraction. You can find it on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

Michael 33:45

I’ve been listening to that.

So, I can tell you, diligent listeners, that if you’ve enjoyed the conversation today, even just a little bit, that ten minutes once a month with Esther will give you much to chew on the rest of that month.

Esther 34:04

Thank you for saying that.

Michael 34:07

You’re welcome!

Any last words, Esther?

Esther 34:11

Thanks for having me on. We haven’t, we said we met in 2006. But it’s been a long time since we talked. So it’s really nice to reconnect with you.

Michael 34:20

It is! Thank you so much.

And listeners, have an edifying day.

Thanks for joining us on Uncommon Leadership today.

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