The 1% Podcast

Tim Harkness

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    Tim Harkness

    Communication and mastering conversations Lincoln Recruitment Specialists

My guest today is Tim Harkness.

Tim has over 22 years of experience as a Psychologist and Sports Scientist and currently holds the position of Head of Sports Science and Psychology at Chelsea Football Club. In addition, Tim has worked closely with a diverse group of elite athletes from Abhinav Bindra the only Indian Olympian Gold Medallist since 1980,  to the Delhi Capitals IPL team. In 2018 Tim was the Team Psychologist to the Saudi Arabia National Football team at the 2018 FIFA world cup.


Tim grew up in South Africa during the 1970s and 80s and observed the successful political change from the apartheid regime to democracy Throughout his career, he’s learnt how powerful effective communication really is. When we disagree, it is often more productive to stop talking about the topic and start talking about the rules of engagement.


He recently published his first book, ‘10 Rules for Talking: An Expert’s Guide to Mastering Difficult Conversations’.  It is packed with great advice from someone who has communicated and coached in high-performance cultures across the globe. The book is about so much more than communication and conversations. It addresses some of the essential themes around personal interaction, how we think, how we express ourselves and create meaning from these interactions. It’s really about how we live our lives and how we can live them better by improving our communication.


In this episode we talk through his life, the lessons from the book and from working with high performing teams.




Show Summary

3:18 How growing up in during the apartheid influenced Tim’s outlook on life?

  • Growing up around deliberate social engineering
  • Clear memories of social damages
  • Reflecting on systemic racism today
  • Advice for white people about how to engage with social injustice


7:51 The indirect influences from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about how to have difficult conversations

  • “Why is it hard to bring some things out to the open?”
  • Africa’s linguistic tradition and history of storytelling
  • Respect the craft of communication


9:58 Getting into psychology and specialising in sports psychology

  • “I wanted to work with talented people”
  • His personal love for sport


11:20  Has sports psychology achieved what it has set out to do?

  • Tim works in an insular environment
  • Advice to aspiring sports psychologists: not everything is psychological
  • The myth of “everything is possible”
  • The elite athletes excel in focus
  • Being practical in the intangible world of psychology


14:32 Finding the right balance with focus

  • The System 1 vs. System 2 debate by Daniel Kahneman


18:34 When to follow our instinctive decisions, outside of the sports realm

  • “Many of life’s challenges and dilemmas are recurring”
  • Experimenting with thinking fast and slow


21:15 How to increase our focus in day to day life

  • Focus is like a torch beam – consider its brightness, breadth, and direction
  • Practice self-awareness and regular reflection
  • Lessons from playing squash – it’s 100% focus on the power through the wrist
  • Education falls short by not teaching students what to concentrate on


26:18 Flow vs effort with focus

  • Knowing when to apply System 1 and System 2


28:32 Working with goalkeepers to boost their performance

  • Previously coached football
  • The biggest challenge for goalkeepers: they carry the can a lot of the time
  • Goalkeeping is measurable but not totally manageable
  • The parallels with investment world in terms of uncontrollables


31:48 Does the mind give up before our bodies? Looking at older cyclists

  • We can’t run ourselves to death: we’re hunters
  • Long-term physical stress from endurance sports 
  • “Don’t injure yourself, don’t scar your heart. As long as you can avoid those, you can have an extremely long and happy sporting life”
  • The effect of becoming de-trained is much stronger than the effect of ageing


35:53 Communication across different cultures

  • The calibration issues when understanding different cultures
  • It’s not always East vs West: e.g. similarities between Italian and Indian cultures
  • Every culture values privacy and inclusion: can’t have them at the same time
  • “Culture is just a veneer on top; underneath people are the same”


40:59 Techniques and approaches when coaching people for the first time

  • “The athlete you’re talking to already has a theory of sports psychology”
  • The need for careful listening


43:14 Taking on new ideas and skills in the run-up to a major event

  • It can be detrimental to performance
  • There’s the temptation to change, but in pressured moments keep the same


44:52 Heart Rate Variability and breathing techniques

  • Parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems need to be in balance
  • Regulating your own arousal levels through breathing
  • Having an easy and a hard pace like pro cyclists


49:26 Athletes communicating with each other

  • Provide emotional support when you can’t physically 
  • The skill of communicating practically in a sport like football


51:56 The purpose of communication 

  • The different objectives of conversations: factual, forecast, value, allegiance 
  • The problem with political conversations when they’re both factual and allegiance 


56:20 Verbal and non-verbal cues

  • Building the flow between System 1 and System 2 – allow them to communicate with each other
  • Gaslighting blocks communication


1:00:53 What’s the best way for white people to talk about diversity and inclusion?

  • Recognise that white people are part of the equation
  • Whiteness affects your circumstances
  • Learning from the book ‘White Fragility’: “You’re not necessarily the luckiest person in the world, but it’s not because you’re white”


1:04:56 The inspiration behind writing the book and writing process

  • On lacking certain skills in talking, writing serves as another way to communicate
  • Ben Lyttleton’s books ‘Edge’ and ‘Twelve Yards: The Art & Psychology of the Perfect Penalty’
  • Initially an unconfident writer, he discovered he loved the process


1:08:29 Why do we need rules in conversations?

  • We need rules when we get stuck


1:10:09 The motivation formula

  • Learning from a house gecko
  • Motivation comes from being more confident, more rewarded and less tasked


1:13:18 Ways to improve confidence

  • Step out of the binary world of success/ failure
  • Confidence isn’t about being black or white, but accepting the shades of grey


1:15:11 Dealing with disputes

  • We fight because we lack social skills, not because one is good vs bad
  • “Conflict is a consequence of our well-intentioned failure to manage multiple agendas”
  • Learn to recognise bad traits like selfishness and deliberate untruthfulness
  • The warning signs of Donald Trump
  • Strive for fewer false positives


1:18:50 Using communication effectively for bad reasons

  • We talk to identify who has the best idea
  • “Competing ideas are best resolved in a governed environment”
  • Having no space to cheat, like in football: it’s governed by referees, spectators, players and rules 


1:22:18 How do we agree on truth? 

  • Rule 1: agree what you’re talking for
  • The need to have an agreed method/ process for discovering the truth
  • Extend the scientific method to complex social issues


1:26:36 The skill of stress-testing truth from conversations

  • It needs to be taught at school from a young age
  • Critical thinking prioritises truth over opinion
  • Collaboration to find the truth


1:128:14 The role of resilience in conversation

  • Resilience is not about coping with more
  • Don’t be quick to judge what stressed people are going through


1:32:22 Enhancing personal relationships through better communication

  • John M. Gottman’s ‘Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work’
  • Focusing on the good qualities of each other
  • We need people to turn to


1:35:59 Understanding the PERMA acronym 

  • Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Accomplishment
  • Formed by Martin Seligman
  • We need all of these things in order to have satisfying lives
  • Have multiple sources of these categories


1:39:50 Working in a remote world: how can we avoid our written word from being misconstrued?

  • Humans look for patterns, which means we’re good at making stuff up


1:41:46 The four types of conversationalists

  • Piers Morgan is a typical escalator
  • Escalation can be used for the greater good, e.g. at an unfair trial
  • Storytellers: Boris Johnson draws vivid pictures but can lack vigour
  • Safety: conversations are only safe when both parties are safe
  • The Analyst can also benefit from learning how to tell stories
  • We want to use all the conversation styles


1:45:55 Some of the best communicators in the public realm

  • Jacinda Ardern, Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau 
  • Rishi Sunak: factual but good storytellers
  • Dave Brailsford communicates difficult stories e.g. Chris Froome
  • Lewis Hamilton: social and personal awareness


1:47:30 What are the effects of good listening?

  • “You can’t have a conversation without listening”
  • It’s an act of inviting
  • Why do we sometimes not listen?


1:50:17 How to have difficult conversations

  • Have the confidence in your ability to build safety in a conversation
  • 4 real safety skills: commitment, contrast, perspective, apology
  • Get everyone to accept that there are rules that benefit communication
  • Review the rules to see which ones you disagree with
  • Consider the flip-side: how could the conversation be better without rules?