Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.

With over 350,000 monthly readers and more than 87,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.

Listening and the Learning Lens

Seneca Friendship
In Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices make All the Difference, there is an excellent chapter on listening.

When it comes to describing much of what currently passes for personal communication, the analogy of the crocodile is an apt one: all mouth and no ears.

So this is why mom and dad used to tell me that I had two ears and one mouth. Yet no one has ever taught me how to listen. I mean really listen.

Communication is arguably the most important life skill of all. The quality of human relations is in large part determined by the quality of communication. There are talkers and there are listeners, but we don’t learn much, if anything, while we are talking.

Communicating means both transmitting and receiving. We receive through our ears, eyes, feelings, and perception.

But information doesn’t enter the brain directly. It passes through our eyes, ears and other sense organs before being processed by our brain. We receive information through the “lenses” we are wearing. We are going to consider two types of communication lens: what I call the lecturing lens and the learning lens. Each of us has a default tendency towards one or the other. Which is your default mode?

First let’s talk about the lens distorters.

***

The Lens Distorters

These inhibit clear communication. Here are some of the most common ones.

The limits of language. There are a few distorters at work here. To begin with, verbal communication represents just a small part of overall communication. When we speak to each other we are essentially blowing air at each other – albeit in a highly sophisticated fashion. Phone calls are far less effective than face-to-face encounters. Secondly, we are not always able to find the right words. Words are often not specific enough. We have a word for friend and a word for enemy. What about someone in between? An acquaintance perhaps? What about a work colleague that you respect and trust but would not want to socialise with? Even black and white are not black and white. I recently met the head of an international thread manufacturer that produced over 200 different shades of “white” thread!

Different histories and cultures. Your lens and my lens will have been shaped by our individual histories and conditioning. Words, gestures or tones that may seem humorous and harmless to me could seem offensive to you.

Different contexts. In addition to unique histories, everyone has a different current context and emotional state. …

Irrational expectation of rationality. When we communicate we expect that logic is what drives other people’s behaviour. The reality is that much more is at play and you will waste a lot of time in this world trying to move people through brute logic.

***

What Is Your Default Lens?

Are you a talker or listener?

Animated or observant? Focused on yourself or on the other person? I characterise those of us who are more likely to be talkers as wearing the lecturing lens. Gaps in conversation are simply periods during which we gather our thoughts to continue our lecture – me and my story. Others are better listeners and tend to communicate through a learning lens. I suspect that good listeners are in the minority, which makes defaulting to the learning lens all the more effective. There can be no real understanding without listening. We feel honoured when others take a genuine interest in understanding our position. When people understand us we are psychologically validated. Our opinion matters. We matter.

***

Suggestions For Better Communication With Others

Make the learning lens your default setting. Approach every conversation with an open mind. OK, I have a view and I believe it to be the correct one, but, what might I be missing here? What if the other person has some insight that can illuminate my own? What if I am wrong? We listen intently not just with our ears, but with our eyes and our senses. We are paying attention, striving to perceive what is really going on in the other person’s mind. And they know and appreciate it. The whole conversation is a journey of discovery not a battle of wits.

Make them a star. Try to bring out the best in other people. This is not false flattery, but helping people get their views properly heard and understood. Do not seek to show off how smart you are.

Be courteous. There is no need for rudeness. Respect the right of someone to have a different opinion from yours. Leave unconstructive criticism at the door. There is no good in it. It merely creates resentment and distorts the other person’s lens, often for a long time. If you call a person an idiot, both you, and the person you insulted, have changed. No apology can take back the words. Avoid criticising people in print or in front of others.

Double check your gut feelings. For example, first impressions can trigger subconscious negative emotions. The person resembles someone you had a problem with, and you suddenly dislike them. Abraham Lincoln understood this risk. When he met someone he didn’t like, he resolved to get to know them better.

Find your words. Once you have demonstrated a full understanding of the other person’s view, think carefully about what you want to say and then don’t say it! Try instead to figure out what the other person is likely to hear. In other words, try to make some allowance for the distortions in their lens. Your opinion on something is more credible when you can also clearly articulate the contrary view. Good communicators are thoughtful in how they choose and arrange their words.

Words are never enough. Your tone and demeanour should be consistent with, and supportive of, the whole message.

Choose quality over quantity. Don’t always feel there is a need to fill every moment with communication.

Know when to give or accept an apology. A genuine apology, offered sincerely and accepted, is one the most emotionally mature human interactions.

***

To Sum Up

Don’t be a crocodile, all mouth and no ears. Choose a learning lens over a lecturing lens. Be aware of the differences between your lenses and those of others. To truly listen to others is a gift to them. Give it with courtesy and humility. The payback is real understanding.

***

I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices make All the Difference.