Tag: Philosophy

The Code of Hammurabi: The Best Rule To Manage Risk

hammurabi's code

Almost 4,000 years ago, King Hammurabi of Babylon, Mesopotamia, laid out one of the first sets of laws.

Hammurabi’s Code is among the oldest translatable writings. It consists of 282 laws, most concerning punishment. Each law takes into account the perpetrator’s status. The code also includes the earliest known construction laws, designed to align the incentives of builder and occupant to ensure that builders created safe homes:

  1. If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction firm, and the house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.
  2. If it causes the death of the son of the owner of the house, they shall put to death a son of that builder.
  3. If it causes the death of a slave of the owner of the house, he shall give to the owner of the house a slave of equal value.
  4. If it destroys property, he shall restore whatever it destroyed, and because he did not make the house which he builds firm and it collapsed, he shall rebuild the house which collapsed at his own expense.
  5. If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction meet the requirements and a wall falls in, that builder shall strengthen the wall at his own expense.

Hammurabi became ruler of Babylon in 1792 BC and held the position for 43 years. In the era of city-states, Hammurabi grew his modest kingdom (somewhere between 60 and 160 square kilometers) by conquering several neighboring states. Satisfied, then, with the size of the area he controlled, Hammurabi settled down to rule his people.

“This world of ours appears to be separated by a slight and precarious margin of safety from a most singular and unexpected danger.”

— Arthur Conan Doyle

Hammurabi was a fair leader and concerned with the well-being of his people. He transformed the area, ordering the construction of irrigation ditches to improve agricultural productivity, as well as supplying cities with protective walls and fortresses. Hammurabi also renovated temples and religious sites.

By today’s standards, Hammurabi was a dictator. Far from abusing his power, however, he considered himself the “shepherd” of his people. Although the Babylonians kept slaves, they too had rights. Slaves could marry other people of any status, start businesses, and purchase their freedom, and they were protected from mistreatment.

At first glance, it might seem as if we have little to learn from Hammurabi. I mean, why bother learning about the ancient Babylonians? They were just barbaric farmers, right?

It seems we’re not as different as it appears. Our modern beliefs are not separate from those of people in Hammurabi’s time; they are a continuation of them. Early legal codes are the ancestors of the ones we now put our faith in.

Whether a country is a dictatorship or democracy, one of the keys to any effective legal system is the ability for anyone to understand its laws. We’re showing cracks in ours and we can learn from the simplicity of Hammurabi’s Code, which concerned itself with practical justice and not lofty principles. To even call it a set of laws is misleading. The ancient Babylonians did not appear to have an equivalent term.

Three important concepts are implicit in Hammurabi’s Code: reciprocity, accountability, and incentives.

We have no figures for how often Babylonian houses fell down before and after the implementation of the Code. We have no idea how many (if any) people were put to death as a result of failing to adhere to Hammurabi’s construction laws. But we do know that human self-preservation instincts are strong. More than strong, they underlie most of our behavior. Wanting to avoid death is the most powerful incentive we have. If we assume that people felt and thought the same way 4000 years ago, we can guess at the impact of the Code.

Imagine yourself as a Babylonian builder. Each time you construct a house, there is a risk it will collapse if you make any mistakes. So, what do you do? You allow for the widest possible margin of safety. You plan for any potential risks. You don’t cut corners or try to save a little bit of money. No matter what, you are not going to allow any known flaws in the construction. It wouldn’t be worth it. You want to walk away certain that the house is solid.

Now contrast that with modern engineers or builders.

They don’t have much skin in the game. The worst they face if they cause a death is a fine. We saw this in Hurricane Katrina —1600 people died due to flooding caused in part by the poor design of hurricane protection systems in New Orleans. Hindsight analysis showed that the city’s floodwalls, levees, pumps, and gates were ill designed and maintained. The death toll was worse than it would otherwise have been. And yet, no one was held accountable.

Hurricane Katrina is regarded as a disaster that was part natural and part man-made. In recent months, in the Grenfell Tower fire in London, we saw the effects of negligent construction. At least 80 people died in a blaze that is believed to have started accidentally but that, according to expert analysis, was accelerated by the conscious use of cheap building materials that had failed safety tests.

The portions of Hammurabi’s Code that deal with construction laws, as brutal as they are (and as uncertain as we are of their short-term effects) illustrate an important concept: margins of safety. When we construct a system, ensuring that it can handle the expected pressures is insufficient.

A Babylonian builder would not have been content to make a house that was strong enough to handle just the anticipated stressors. A single Black Swan event — such as abnormal weather — could cause its collapse and in turn the builder’s own death, so builders had to allow for a generous margin of safety. The larger the better. In 59 mph winds, we do not want to be in a house built to withstand 60 mph winds.

But our current financial systems do not incentivize people to create wide margins of safety. Instead, they do the opposite — they encourage dangerous risk-taking.

Nassim Taleb referred to Hammurabi’s Code in a New York Times opinion piece in which he described a way to prevent bankers from threatening the public well-being. His solution? Stop offering bonuses for the risky behavior of people who will not be the ones paying the price if the outcome is bad. Taleb wrote:

…it’s time for a fundamental reform: Any person who works for a company that, regardless of its current financial health, would require a taxpayer-financed bailout if it failed should not get a bonus, ever. In fact, all pay at systemically important financial institutions — big banks, but also some insurance companies and even huge hedge funds — should be strictly regulated.

The issue, in Taleb’s opinion, is not the usual complaint of income inequality or overpay. Instead, he views bonuses as asymmetric incentives. They reward risks but do not punish the subsequent mistakes that cause “hidden risks to accumulate in the financial system and become a catalyst for disaster.” It’s a case of “heads, I win; tails, you lose.”

Bonuses encourage bankers to ignore the potential for Black Swan events, with the 2008 financial crisis being a prime (or rather, subprime) example. Rather than ignoring these events, banks should seek to minimize the harm caused.

Some career fields have a strict system of incentives and disincentives, both official and unofficial. Doctors get promotions and respect if they do their jobs well, and risk heavy penalties for medical malpractice. With the exception of experiments in which patients are fully informed of and consent to the risks, doctors don’t get a free pass for taking risks that cause harm to patients.

The same goes for military and security personnel. As Taleb wrote, “we trust the military and homeland security personnel with our lives, yet we don’t give them lavish bonuses. They get promotions and the honor of a job well done if they succeed, and the severe disincentive of shame if they fail.”

Hammurabi and his advisors were unconcerned with complex laws and legalese. Instead, they wanted the Code to produce results and to be understandable by everyone. And Hammurabi understood how incentives work — a lesson we’d be well served to learn.

When you align incentives of everyone in both positive and negative ways, you create a system that takes care of itself. Taleb describes Law 229 of Hammurabi’s Code as “the best risk-management rule ever.” Although barbaric to modern eyes, it took into account certain truisms. Builders typically know more about construction than their clients do and can take shortcuts in ways that aren’t obvious. After completing construction, a builder can walk away with a little extra profit, while the hapless client is unknowingly left with an unsafe house.

The little extra profit that builders can generate is analogous to the bonus system in some of today’s industries. It rewards those who take unwise risks, trick their customers, and harm other people for their own benefit. Hammurabi’s system had the opposite effect; it united the interests of the person getting paid and the person paying. Rather than the builder being motivated to earn as much profit as possible and the homeowner being motivated to get a safe house, they both shared the latter goal.

The Code illustrates the efficacy of using self-preservation as an incentive. We feel safer in airplanes that are flown by a person and not by a machine because, in part, we believe that pilots want to protect their own lives along with ours.

When we lack an incentive to protect ourselves, we are far more likely to risk the safety of other people. This is why bankers are willing to harm their customers if it means the bankers get substantial bonuses. And why male doctors prescribed contraceptive pills to millions of female patients in the 1960s, without informing them of the risks (which were high at the time). This is why companies that market harmful products, such as fast food and tobacco, are content to play down the risks. Or why the British initiative to reduce the population of Indian cobras by compensating those who caught the snakes had the opposite effect. Or why Wells Fargo employees opened millions of fake accounts to reach sales targets.

Incentives backfire when there are no negative consequences for those who exploit them. External incentives are based on extrinsic motivation, which easily goes awry.

When we have real skin in the game—when we have upsides and downsides—we care about outcomes in a way that we wouldn’t otherwise. We act in a different way. We take our time. We use second-order thinking and inversion. We look for evidence or a way to disprove it.

Four thousand years ago, the Babylonians understood the power of incentives, yet we seem to have since forgotten about the flaws in human nature that make it difficult to resist temptation.

The Fairness Principle: How the Veil of Ignorance Helps Test Fairness

“But the nature of man is sufficiently revealed for him to know something of himself and sufficiently veiled to leave much impenetrable darkness, a darkness in which he ever gropes, forever in vain, trying to understand himself.”

— Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

The Basics

If you could redesign society from scratch, what would it look like?

How would you distribute wealth and power?

Would you make everyone equal or not? How would you define fairness and equality?

And — here’s the kicker — what if you had to make those decisions without knowing who you would be in this new society?

Philosopher John Rawls asked just that in a thought experiment known as “the Veil of Ignorance” in his 1971 book, Theory of Justice.

Like many thought experiments, the Veil of Ignorance could never be carried out in the literal sense, nor should it be. Its purpose is to explore ideas about justice, morality, equality, and social status in a structured manner.

The Veil of Ignorance, a component of social contract theory, allows us to test ideas for fairness.

Behind the Veil of Ignorance, no one knows who they are. They lack clues as to their class, their privileges, their disadvantages, or even their personality. They exist as an impartial group, tasked with designing a new society with its own conception of justice.

As a thought experiment, the Veil of Ignorance is powerful because our usual opinions regarding what is just and unjust are informed by our own experiences. We are shaped by our race, gender, class, education, appearance, sexuality, career, family, and so on. On the other side of the Veil of Ignorance, none of that exists. Technically, the resulting society should be a fair one.

In Ethical School Leadership, Spencer J. Maxcy writes:

Imagine that you have set for yourself the task of developing a totally new social contract for today's society. How could you do so fairly? Although you could never actually eliminate all of your personal biases and prejudices, you would need to take steps at least to minimize them. Rawls suggests that you imagine yourself in an original position behind a veil of ignorance. Behind this veil, you know nothing of yourself and your natural abilities, or your position in society. You know nothing of your sex, race, nationality, or individual tastes. Behind such a veil of ignorance all individuals are simply specified as rational, free, and morally equal beings. You do know that in the “real world,” however, there will be a wide variety in the natural distribution of natural assets and abilities, and that there will be differences of sex, race, and culture that will distinguish groups of people from each other.

“The Fairness Principle: When contemplating a moral action, imagine that you do not know if you will be the moral doer or receiver, and when in doubt err on the side of the other person.”

— Michael Shermer, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom

The Purpose of the Veil of Ignorance

Because people behind the Veil of Ignorance do not know who they will be in this new society, any choice they make in structuring that society could either harm them or benefit them.

If they decide men will be superior, for example, they must face the risk that they will be women. If they decide that 10% of the population will be slaves to the others, they cannot be surprised if they find themselves to be slaves. No one wants to be part of a disadvantaged group, so the logical belief is that the Veil of Ignorance would produce a fair, egalitarian society.

Behind the Veil of Ignorance, cognitive biases melt away. The hypothetical people are rational thinkers. They use probabilistic thinking to assess the likelihood of their being affected by any chosen measure. They possess no opinions for which to seek confirmation. Nor do they have any recently learned information to pay undue attention to. The sole incentive they are biased towards is their own self-preservation, which is equivalent to the preservation of the entire group. They cannot stereotype any particular group as they could be members of it. They lack commitment to their prior selves as they do not know who they are.

So, what would these people decide on? According to Rawls, in a fair society all individuals must possess the following:

  • Rights and liberties (including the right to vote, the right to hold public office, free speech, free thought, and fair legal treatment)
  • Power and opportunities
  • Income and wealth sufficient for a good quality of life (Not everyone needs to be rich, but everyone must have enough money to live a comfortable life.)
  • The conditions necessary for self-respect

For these conditions to occur, the people behind the Veil of Ignorance must figure out how to achieve what Rawls regards as the two key components of justice:

  • Everyone must have the best possible life which does not cause harm to others.
  • Everyone must be able to improve their position, and any inequalities must be present solely if they benefit everyone.

However, the people behind the Veil of Ignorance cannot be completely blank slates or it would be impossible for them to make rational decisions. They understand general principles of science, psychology, politics, and economics. Human behavior is no mystery to them. Neither are key economic concepts, such as comparative advantage and supply and demand. Likewise, they comprehend the deleterious impact of social entropy, and they have a desire to create a stable, ordered society. Knowledge of human psychology leads them to be cognizant of the universal desire for happiness and fulfillment. Rawls considered all of this to be the minimum viable knowledge for rational decision-making.

Ways of Understanding the Veil of Ignorance

One way to understand the Veil of Ignorance is to imagine that you are tasked with cutting up a pizza to share with friends. You will be the last person to take a slice. Being of sound mind, you want to get the largest possible share, and the only way to ensure this is to make all the slices the same size. You could cut one huge slice for yourself and a few tiny ones for your friends, but one of them might take the large slice and leave you with a meager share. (Not to mention, your friends won’t think very highly of you.)

Another means of appreciating the implications of the Veil of Ignorance is by considering the social structures of certain species of ants. Even though queen ants are able to form colonies alone, they will band together to form stronger, more productive colonies. Once the first group of worker ants reaches maturity, the queens fight to the death until one remains. When they first form a colony, the queen ants are behind a Veil of Ignorance. They do not know if they will be the sole survivor or not. All they know, on an instinctual level, is that cooperation is beneficial for their species. Like the people behind the Veil of Ignorance, the ants make a decision which, by necessity, is selfless.

The Veil of Ignorance, as a thought experiment, shows us that ignorance is not always detrimental to a society. In some situations, it can create robust social structures. In the animal kingdom, we see many examples of creatures that cooperate even though they do not know if they will suffer or benefit as a result. In a paper entitled “The Many Selves of Social Insects,” Queller and Strassmann write of bees:

…social insect colonies are so tightly integrated that they seem to function as single organisms, as a new level of self. The honeybees' celebrated dance about food location is just one instance of how their colonies integrate and act on information that no single individual possesses. Their unity of purpose is underscored by the heroism of workers, whose suicidal stinging attacks protect the single reproducing queen.

We can also consider the Tragedy of the Commons. Introduced by ecologist Garrett Hardin, this mental model states that shared resources will be exploited if no system for fair distribution is implemented. Individuals have no incentive to leave a share of free resources for others. Hardin’s classic example is an area of land which everyone in a village is free to use for their cattle. Each person wants to maximize the usefulness of the land, so they put more and more cattle out to graze. Yet the land is finite and at some point will become too depleted to support livestock. If the people behind the Veil of Ignorance had to choose how the common land should be shared, the logical decision would be to give each person an equal part and forbid them from introducing too many cattle.

As N. Gregory Mankiw writes in Principles of Microeconomics:

The Tragedy of the Commons is a story with a general lesson: when one person uses a common resource, he diminishes other people's enjoyment of it. Because of this negative externality, common resources tend to be used excessively. The government can solve the problem by reducing use of the common resource through regulation or taxes. Alternatively, the government can sometimes turn the common resource into a private good.

This lesson has been known for thousands of years. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle pointed out the problem with common resources: “What is common to many is taken least care of, for all men have greater regard for what is their own than for what they possess in common with others.”

In The Case for Meritocracy, Michael Faust uses other thought experiments to support the Veil of Ignorance:

Let’s imagine another version of the thought experiment. If inheritance is so inherently wonderful — such an intrinsic good — then let’s collect together all of the inheritable money in the world. We shall now distribute this money in exactly the same way it would be distributed in today’s world… but with one radical difference. We are going to distribute it by lottery rather than by family inheritance, i.e, anyone in the world can receive it. So, in these circumstances, how many people who support inheritance would go on supporting it? Note that the government wouldn’t be getting the money… just lucky strangers. Would the advocates of inheritance remain as fiercely committed to their cherished principle? Or would the entire concept instantly be exposed for the nonsense it is?

If inheritance were treated as the lottery it is, no one would stand by it.

[…]

In the world of the 1% versus the 99%, no one in the 1% would ever accept a lottery to decide inheritance because there would be a 99% chance they would end up as schmucks, exactly like the rest of us.

And a further surrealistic thought experiment:

Imagine that on a certain day of the year, each person in the world randomly swaps bodies with another person, living anywhere on earth. Well, for the 1%, there’s a 99% chance that they will be swapped from heaven to hell. For the 99%, 1% might be swapped from hell to heaven, while the other 98% will stay the same as before. What kind of constitution would the human race adopt if annual body swapping were a compulsory event?! They would of course choose a fair one.

“In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance.”

— Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

The History of Social Contract Theory

Although the Veil of Ignorance was first described by Rawls in 1971, many other philosophers and writers have discussed similar concepts in the past. Philosophers discussed social contract theory as far back as ancient Greece.

In Crito, Plato describes a conversation in which Socrates discusses the laws of Athens and how they are responsible for his existence. Finding himself in prison and facing the death penalty, Socrates rejects Crito’s suggestion that he should escape. He states that further injustice is not an appropriate response to prior injustice. Crito believes that by refusing to escape, Socrates is aiding his enemies, as well as failing to fulfil his role as a father. But Socrates views the laws of Athens as a single entity that has always protected him. He describes breaking any of the laws as being like injuring a parent. Having lived a long, fulfilling life as a result of the social contract he entered at birth, he has no interest in now turning away from Athenian law. Accepting death is essentially a symbolic act that Socrates intends to use to illustrate rationality and reason to his followers. If he were to escape, he would be acting out of accord with the rest of his life, during which he was always concerned with justice.

Social contract theory is concerned with the laws and norms a society decides on and the obligation individuals have to follow them. Socrates’ dialogue with Plato has similarities with the final scene of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. At the end of the play, John Proctor is hung for witchcraft despite having the option to confess and avoid death. In continuing to follow the social contract of Salem and not confessing to a crime he obviously did not commit, Proctor believes that his death will redeem his earlier mistakes. We see this in the final dialogue between Reverend Hale and Elizabeth (Proctor's wife):

HALE: Woman, plead with him! […] Woman! It is pride, it is vanity. […] Be his helper! What profit him to bleed? Shall the dust praise him? Shall the worms declare his truth? Go to him, take his shame away!

 

ELIZABETH: […] He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him!

In these two situations, individuals allow themselves to be put to death in the interest of following the social contract they agreed upon by living in their respective societies. Earlier in their lives, neither person knew what their ultimate fate would be. They were essentially behind the Veil of Ignorance when they chose (consciously or unconsciously) to follow the laws enforced by the people around them. Just as the people behind the Veil of Ignorance must accept whatever roles they receive in the new society, Socrates and Proctor followed social contracts. To modern eyes, the decision both men make to abandon their children in the interest of proving a point is not easily defensible.

Immanuel Kant wrote about justice and freedom in the late 1700s. Kant believed that fair laws should not be based on making people happy or reflecting the desire of individual policymakers, but should be based on universal moral principles:

Is it not of the utmost necessity to construct a pure moral philosophy which is completely freed from everything that may be only empirical and thus belong to anthropology? That there must be such a philosophy is self-evident from the common idea of duty and moral laws. Everyone must admit that a law, if it is to hold morally, i.e., as a ground of obligation, must imply absolute necessity; he must admit that the command, “Then shalt not lie,” does not apply to men only, as if other rational beings had no need to observe it. The same is true for all other moral laws properly so called. He must concede that the ground of obligation here must not be sought in the nature of man or in the circumstances in which he is placed, but sought a priori solely in the concepts of pure reason, and that every other precept which is in certain respects universal, so far as it leans in the least on empirical grounds (perhaps only in regard to the motive involved), may be called a practical rule but never a moral law.

How We Can Apply This Concept

We can use the Veil of Ignorance to test whether a certain issue is fair.

When my kids are fighting over the last cookie, which happens more often than you'd imagine, I ask them to determine who will spilt the cookie. The other person picks. This is the old playground rule, “you split, I pick.” Without this rule, one of them would surely give the other a smaller portion. With it, the halves are as equal as they would be with sensible adults.

When considering whether we should endorse a proposed law or policy, we can ask: if I did not know if this would affect me or not, would I still support it? Those who make big decisions that shape the lives of large numbers of people are almost always those in positions of power. And those in positions of power are almost always members of privileged groups. As Benjamin Franklin once wrote: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

Laws allowing or prohibiting abortion have typically been made by men, for example. As the issue lacks real significance in their personal lives, they are free to base decisions on their own ideological views, rather than consider what is fair and sane. However, behind the Veil of Ignorance, no one knows their sex. Anyone deciding on abortion laws would have to face the possibility that they themselves will end up as a woman with an unwanted pregnancy.

In Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, Rawls writes:

So what better alternative is there than an agreement between citizens themselves reached under conditions that are fair for all?

[…]

[T]hreats of force and coercion, deception and fraud, and so on must be ruled out.

And:

Deep religious and moral conflicts characterize the subjective circumstances of justice. Those engaged in these conflicts are surely not in general self-interested, but rather, see themselves as defending their basic rights and liberties which secure their legitimate and fundamental interests. Moreover, these conflicts can be the most intractable and deeply divisive, often more so than social and economic ones.

 

In Ethics: Studying the Art of Moral Appraisal, Ronnie Littlejohn explains:

We must have a mechanism by which we can eliminate the arbitrariness and bias of our “situation in life” and insure that our moral standards are justified by the one thing all people share in common: reason. It is the function of the veil of ignorance to remove such bias.

When we have to make decisions that will affect other people, especially disadvantaged groups (such as when a politician decides to cut benefits or a CEO decides to outsource manufacturing to a low-income country), we can use the Veil of Ignorance as a tool for making fair choices.

As Robert F. Kennedy (the younger brother of John F. Kennedy) said in the 1960s:

Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

When we choose to position ourselves behind the Veil of Ignorance, we have a better chance of creating one of those all-important ripples.

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Life Lessons from a Self-Made Billionaire: My Conversation with Ray Dalio

Are you in love with your own ideas regardless of how good they are?
Would you like to make better decisions and fewer mistakes?
Would you like to improve the most important relationships in your life?

These are just some of the topics I discuss with my guest, Ray Dalio.

Ray Dalio is the founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, and is the author of the new book Principles: Life and Work. He is also a leading figure in the world of philanthropy, is an avid supporter of transcendental meditation, and has appeared on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. His recent TED Talk on the topic of an idea meritocracy has already been viewed over a million times.

Ray gave me over an hour and a half of his time, and I didn’t waste a minute of it. We cover a lot of ground, including:

  • How most people are caught up in the “blizzard” of noise and information, and how Ray learned to operate above it
  • How predicting a financial collapse just before one of the most prosperous eras in US history almost ruined him — and why he’s grateful he was wrong
  • Ray’s meditation practices and a simple exercise you can use to foster more creativity, be more insightful, and eliminate stress
  • The one question Ray started asking himself that instantly improved how he made important decisions
  • Why the best decision isn’t always the one you have in your head — and how to know when to sacrifice your favorite ideas in exchange for the best ideas
  • The “two yous” that wrestle inside everybody, and how to help them get along
  • Why “tough love” is the greatest gift you can give somebody
  • The most common mistake we make every day that can bring our progress to a screeching halt
  • The five-step process Ray uses after a mistake has been made to make sure learning and growth occur

And much, much more.

Look, when you get the chance to ask one of the world’s most successful people how they did it, you should probably listen to what they have to say. I guarantee this will be time well spent.

Enjoy!

Listen

Transcript

A full transcript is available to members of our learning community or for purchase separately.

Show Notes

Ray tells the story of punching his boss in his face. [00:02:34]
What a typical day is like for the manager of the world's largest hedge fund [00:04:00]
Shane asks Ray how he filters what's valuable and what's noise when so many people throw information at him [00:05:25]
How Ray came to Transcendental Meditation [00:06:24]
The basics of Transcendental Meditation [00:07:05]
Ray's biggest influences in the 1960s,1970s, and 1980s [00:10:01]
Reading versus experiences [00:11:39]
How did Bridgewater almost go bankrupt? [00:12:04]
One of the most valuable experiences of his life [00:14:40]
The value of thoughtful disagreement and radical open-mindedness [00:15:40]
Learning to look at history for knowledge [00:16:41]
How to use a decision journal [00:18:14]
How long did it take you to figure out the value of stress-testing ideas? [00:20:15]
Idea-meritocratic decision-making is the best decision-making [00:21:36]
There are two things you need to do to be successful [00:21:55]
Thoughtful disagreement is not an easy thing for people [00:22:22]
What is an idea meritocracy? [00:22:43]
The difference between an autocratic decision maker and a democratic decision maker [00:23:50]
What is believability? [00:25:13]
How do people transition into an idea meritocracy? [00:26:44]
The equal values of meaningful work and meaningful relationships [00:29:16]
How can you tell that someone will respond well to an idea meritocracy? [00:30:19]
Understanding whether you're a teacher, student, or peer [00:32:27]
What advice would you have for somebody who doesn't work in an idea meritocracy but wants to improve? [00:33:49]
Are people more successful at Bridgewater with some experience or straight out of school? [00:35:42]
Which one of the principles of an idea meritocracy is most often misunderstood? [00:36:45]
Why is “tough love” one of the best gifts you can give somebody? [00:38:12]
Has your implementation of the principles of idea meritocracy changed over the years? [00:39:44]
What technology tools do you use to aid in decision-making or giving feedback? [00:40:32]
“Pain + reflection = progress” [00:42:04]
Can you define a culture of radical transparency? [00:45:06]
Radical transparency isn't for everybody [00:46:27]
Due to technology, radical transparency is happening anyway [00:47:40]
When radical transparency goes wrong, how does it go wrong? [00:48:49]
The importance of environment [00:49:17]
“There's no disagreement about strengths…” [00:52:03]
How do you foster open-mindedness in yourself or in others? [00:52:33]
Are social gatherings similar to work gatherings? [00:54:05]
The two things that Ray requires in a relationship [00:55:36]
Do other organizations like Bridgewater? [00:56:17]
Is leadership innate or can it be learned? [00:57:43]
The leadership program at Bridgewater [00:59:55]
Who are the masterminds behind the development program at Bridgewater? [01:01:05]
“2017 is going from the second stage of my life to my third stage…” [01:02:55]
The three life stages [01:03:14]
Does Ron worry about the next generation of leadership at Bridgewater? [01:04:43]
How do the principles at Bridgewater extend to philanthropy? [01:06:13]
In what ways will the future be the same as today? [01:09:13]
First-order versus second-order consequences [01:12:11]
With the growth of algorithmic thinking, who is at risk of losing their job? [01:14:08]
Machine-created art versus human-created art: does it matter? [01:15:10]
What's the most common mistake that successful people make? [01:15:53]
Why are many successful people unhappy? [01:16:31]
The connection between community and happiness [01:18:12]
How would a Universal Basic Income interact with a person's need for purpose? [01:19:37]
Ray's wife's experiences with low-income schools and disengaged students [01:20:58]
What is the overarching decision-making process at Bridgewater? [01:23:28]
“Rather than thinking about what our decision is, we spent more time thinking about what our criteria for making our decision are.” [01:23:54]
Ray's five steps to success [01:25:58]
Is the reflection process the most important? [01:27:41]
What advice would you give to a class of high school students? [01:28:33]

People, Events, and Books

Ray’s TED Talk
Bridgewater Associates
President John F. Kennedy
Steve Jobs
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Mexican Debt Crisis
Vince Lombardi
Adam Grant and his book Originals
Robert Keegan and his book, An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization
Warren Buffett

Learn More About Ray

You can learn more about Ray on Twitter and Facebook or by visiting his website, www.principles.com.

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Finding Truth in History

If we are to learn from the past, does the account of it have to be true? One would like to think so. Otherwise you might be preparing for the wrong battle. There you are, geared up for mountains, and instead you find swamps. You've done a bunch of reading, trying to understand the terrain you are about to enter, only to find it useless. The books must have been written by crazy people. You are upset and confused. Surely there must be some reliable, objective account of the past. How are you supposed to prepare for the possibilities of the future if you can't trust the accuracy of the reports on anything that has come before?

For why do we study history, anyway? Why keep a record of things that have happened? We fear that if we don't, we are doomed to repeat history; but often that doesn't seem to stop us from repeating it. And we have an annoying tendency to remember only the things which don't really challenge or upset us. But still we try to capture what we can, through museums and ceremonies and study, because somehow we believe that eventually we will come to learn something about why things happen the way they do. And armed with this knowledge, we might even be able to shape our future.

This “problem of historical truth” is explored by Isaiah Berlin in The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History. He explains that Tolstoy was driven by a “desire to penetrate to first causes, to understand how and why things happen as they do and not otherwise.” We can understand this goal – because if we know how the world really works, we know everything.

Of course, it's not that simple, and — spoiler alert — Tolstoy never figured it out. But Berlin's analysis can illuminate the challenges we face with history and help us find something to learn from.

Tolstoy's main problem with historical efforts at the time was that they were “nothing but a collection of fables and useless trifles. … History does not reveal causes; it presents only a blank succession of unexplained events.” Seen like this, the study of history is a waste of time, other than for trivia games or pub quizzes. Being able to recite what happened is supremely uninteresting if you can't begin to understand why it happened in the first place.

But Tolstoy was also an expert at tearing down the theories of anyone who attempted to make sense of history and provide the why. He thought that they “must be imposters, since no theories can possibly fit the immense variety of possible human behavior, the vast multiplicity of minute, undiscoverable causes and effects which form that interplay of men and nature which history purports to record.”

History is more than just factoids, but its complexity makes it difficult for us to learn exactly why things happened the way they did.

And therein lies the spectrum of the problem for Tolstoy. History is more than just factoids, but its complexity makes it difficult for us to learn exactly why things happened the way they did. A battle is more than dates and times, but trying to trace the real impact of the decisions of Napoleon or Churchill is a fool's errand. There is too much going on – too many decisions and interactions happening in every moment – for us to be able to conclude cause and effect with any certainty. After leaving an ice cube to melt on a table, you can't untangle exactly what happened with each molecule from the puddle. That doesn't mean we can't learn from history; it means only that we need to be careful with the lessons we draw and the confidence we have in them.

Berlin explains:

There is a particularly vivid simile [in War and Peace] in which the great man is likened to the ram whom the shepherd is fattening for slaughter. Because the ram duly grows fatter, and perhaps is used as a bellwether for the rest of the flock, he may easily imagine that he is the leader of the flock, and that the other sheep go where they go solely in obedience to his will. He thinks this and the flock may think it too. Nevertheless the purpose of his selection is not the role he believes himself to play, but slaughter – a purpose conceived by beings whose aims neither he nor the other sheep can fathom. For Tolstoy, Napoleon is just such a ram, and so to some degree is Alexander, and indeed all the great men of history.

Arguing against this view of history was N. I. Kareev, who said:

…it is men, doubtless, who make social forms, but these forms – the ways in which men live – in their turn affect those born into them; individual wills may not be all-powerful, but neither are they totally impotent, and some are more effective than others. Napoleon may not be a demigod, but neither is he a mere epiphenomenon of a process which would have occurred unaltered without him.

This means that studying the past is important for making better decisions in the future. If we can't always follow the course of cause and effect, we can at least discover some very strong correlations and act accordingly.

We have a choice between these two perspectives: Either we can treat history as an impenetrable fog, or we can figure out how to use history while accepting that each day might reveal more and we may have to update our thinking.

Sound familiar? Sounds a lot like the scientific method to me – a preference for updating the foundation of knowledge versus being adrift in chaos or attached to a raft that cannot be added to.

Berlin argues that Tolstoy spent his life trying to find a theory strong enough to unify everything. A way to build a foundation so strong that all arguments would crumble against it. Although that endeavor was ambitious, we don't need to fully understand the why of history in order to be able to learn from it. We don't need the foundation of the past to be solid and fixed in order to gain some insight into our future. We can still find some truth in history.

How?

Funnily enough, Berlin clarifies that Tolstoy “believed that only by patient empirical observation could any knowledge be obtained.” But he also believed “that simple people often know the truth better than learned men, because their observation of men and nature is less clouded by empty theories.”

Unhelpfully, Tolstoy's position amounts to “the more you know, the less you learn.”

The answer to finding truth in history is not to be found in Tolstoy's writing. He was looking for “something too indivisibly simple and remote from normal intellectual processes to be assailable by the instruments of reason, and therefore, perhaps, offering a path to peace and salvation.” He never was able to conclude what that might be.

But there might be an answer in how Berlin interprets Tolstoy's major dissonance in life, the discrepancy that drove him and was never resolved. Tolstoy “tried to resolve the glaring contradiction between what he believed about men and events, and what he thought he believed, or ought to believe.”

Finding truth in history is about understanding that this truth is not absolute. In this sense, truth is based on perspective. The perspective of the person who captured it and the person interpreting it. And the perspective of the translators and editors and primary sources. We don't get to be invisible observers of moments in the past, and we don't get to go into other minds. The best we can do is keep our eyes open and keep our biases in check. And what history can teach us is found not just in the moments it tries to describe, but also in what we choose to look at and how we choose to represent it.

Zero — Invented or Discovered?

It seems almost a bizarre question. Who thinks about whether zero was invented or discovered? And why is it important?

Answering this question, however, can tell you a lot about yourself and how you see the world.

Let’s break it down.

“Invented” implies that humans created the zero and that without us, the zero and its properties would cease to exist.

“Discovered” means that although the symbol is a human creation, what it represents would exist independently of any human ability to label it.

So do you think of the zero as a purely mathematical function, and by extension think of all math as a human construct like, say, cheese or self-driving cars? Or is math, and the zero, a symbolic language that describes the world, the content of which exists completely independently of our descriptions?

The zero is now a ubiquitous component of our understanding.

The concept is so basic it is routinely mastered by the pre-kindergarten set. Consider the equation 3-3=0. Nothing complicated about that. It is second nature to us that we can represent “nothing” with a symbol. It makes perfect sense now, in 2017, and it's so common that we forget that zero was a relatively late addition to the number scale.

Here's a fact that's amazing to most people: the zero is actually younger than mathematics. Pythagoras’s famous conclusion — that in a right-angled triangle, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides — was achieved without a zero. As was Euclid’s entire Elements.

How could this be? It seems surreal, given the importance the zero now has to mathematics, computing, language, and life. How could someone figure out the complex geometry of triangles, yet not realize that nothing was also a number?

Tobias Dantzig, in Number: The Language of Science, offers this as a possible explanation: “The concrete mind of the ancient Greeks could not conceive the void as a number, let alone endow the void with a symbol.” This gives us a good direction for finding the answer to the original question because it hints that you must first understand the concept of the void before you can name it. You need to see that nothingness still takes up space.

It was thought, and sometimes still is, that the number zero was invented in the pursuit of ancient commerce. Something was needed as a placeholder; otherwise, 65 would be indistinguishable from 605 or 6050. The zero represents “no units” of the particular place that it holds. So for that last number, we have six thousands, no hundreds, five tens, and no singles.

A happy accident of no great original insight, zero then made its way around the world. In addition to being convenient for keeping track of how many bags of grain you were owed, or how many soldiers were in your army, it turned our number scale into an extremely efficient decimal system. More so than any numbering system that preceded it (and there were many), the zero transformed the power of our other numerals, propelling mathematics into fantastic equations that can explain our world and fuel incredible scientific and technological advances.

But there is, if you look closely, a missing link in this story.

What changed in humanity that made us comfortable with confronting the void and giving it a symbol? And is it reasonable to imagine creating the number without understanding what it represented? Given its properties, can we really think that it started as a placeholder? Or did it contain within it, right from the beginning, the notion of defining the void, of giving it space?

In Finding Zero, Amir Aczel offers some insight. Basically, he claims that the people who discovered the zero must have had an appreciation of the emptiness that it represented. They were labeling a concept with which they were already familiar.

He rediscovered the oldest known zero, on a stone tablet dating from 683 CE in what is now Cambodia.

On his quest to find this zero, Aczel realized that it was far more natural for the zero to first appear in the Far East, rather than in Western or Arab cultures, due to the philosophical and religious understandings prevalent in the region.

Western society was, and still is in many ways, a binary culture. Good and evil. Mind and body. You’re either with us or against us. A patriot or a terrorist. Many of us naturally try to fit our world into these binary understandings. If something is “A,” then it cannot be “not A.” The very definition of “A” is that it is not “not A.” Something cannot be both.

Aczel writes that this duality is not at all reflected in much Eastern thought. He describes the catuskoti, found in early Buddhist logic, that presents four possibilities, instead of two, for any state: that something is, is not, is both, or is neither.

At first, a typical Western mind might rebel against this kind of logic. My father is either bald or not bald. He cannot be both and he cannot be neither, so what is the use of these two other almost nonsensical options?

A closer examination of our language, though, reveals that the expression of the non-binary is understood, and therefore perhaps more relevant than we think. Take, for example, “you’re either with us or against us.” Is it possible to say “I’m both with you and against you”? Yes. It could mean that you are for the principles but against the tactics. Or that you are supportive in contrast to your values. And to say “I’m neither with you nor against you” could mean that you aren’t supportive of the tactic in question, but won’t do anything to stop it. Or that you just don’t care.

Feelings, in particular, are a realm where the binary is often insufficient. Watching my children, I know that it's possible to be both happy and sad, a traditional binary, at the same time. And the zero itself defies binary categorization. It is something and nothing simultaneously.

Aczel reflects on a conversation he had with a Buddhist monk. “Everything is not everything — there is always something that lies outside of what you may think covers all creation. It could be a thought, or a kind of void, or a divine aspect. Nothing contains everything inside it.”

He goes on to conclude that “Here was the intellectual source of the number zero. It came from Buddhist meditation. Only this deep introspection could equate absolute nothingness with a number that had not existed until the emergence of this idea.”

Which is to say, certain properties of the zero likely were understood conceptually before the symbol came about — nothingness was a thing that could be represented. This idea fits with how we treat the zero today; it may represent nothing, but that nothing still has properties. And investigating those properties demonstrates that there is power in the void — it has something to teach us about how our universe operates.

Further contemplation might illuminate that the zero has something to teach us about existence as well. If we accept zero, the symbol, as being discovered as part of our realization about the existence of nothingness, then trying to understand the zero can teach us a lot about moving beyond the binary of alive/not alive to explore other ways of conceptualizing what it means to be.

Active Listening

“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”
― M. Scott Peck

***

The Basics

The sense that we are not being listened to is one of the most frustrating feelings imaginable. Toddlers scream about it, teenagers move out, couples split up, companies breakdown.

One of the main reasons this breakdown in communication occurs is that listening (like reading, thinking clearly and focusing) is a skill which we rarely consider to be something requiring knowledge and practice.

There is a difference between hearing and listening.

We assume that, as long as we can hear someone and understand their words that we are listening. Hearing alone, however, is not enough. Among other things, we need to comprehend what's being said and why, reflect on intentions, and consider non-verbal communication.

Listening is one of the foundations of society – it is what enables us to form meaningful relationships and connections. And yet most of us haven't thought about how we listen.

As Mortimer J. Adler writes in How to Speak, How to Listen:

We all realize that the ability to read requires training…the same would appear to be true of speaking and listening … training is required … Likewise, skill in listening is either a native gift or it must be acquired by training.

Active listening is a technique for developing our ability to listen.

As a communication technique, it is used in many professional settings but is also valuable for everyday life. Anyone who has ever seen a good therapist will be familiar with the efficacy of active listening. A one-to-one therapist will listen with intent, clarify any uncertain points, often paraphrase what is said and ask the speaker to expand. A family or couple therapist will help to resolve a conflict by facilitating calm communication through reflection, open body language, and by helping couples understand one another.

As Sheldon B. Kopp writes:

The therapist can interpret, advise, provide the emotional acceptance and support that nurtures personal growth, and above all, he can listen. I do not mean that he can simply hear the other, but that he will listen actively and purposefully, responding with the instrument of his trade that is, with the personal vulnerability of his own trembling self. This listening is that which will facilitate the patient's telling of his tale, the telling that can set him free.

For the sake of clarity, we will refer to active listening in the context of two people conversing throughout this article. However, it can occur in communication between multiple people and in groups.

Listening is difficult because it involves suppressing your ego long enough to consider what is being said before you respond.

The Core Components of Active Listening

Comprehending

To communicate, we must first understand what the other person (or people) are actually saying. This is not as simple as it appears.

In most cases, comprehension occurs instantly and unconsciously. However, a number of potential barriers can prevent comprehension, including:

  • Language barriers.
  • The use of jargon or slang.
  • Difference in culture, age, social rank and other discrepancies between people.

In Eyes Wide Open, Isaac Lidsky recommends simplifying comprehension by asking ‘can you explain that like I’m five years old?.' This is the same technique we use to rapidly improve learning. Removing jargon and explaining things in your own language results in massively improved comprehension of complex topics.

Retaining

To respond in an appropriate manner, we must understand and retain what the other person has said. Not everyone will retain the same details.

Some people recall very specific details, while others hold on to the general idea. It is common for us to only retain details which are relevant for our response.

When actively listening, we focus on the other person’s words, rather than thinking about what we can say next. Suppressing our ego is difficult. It's as if we think we already know what the other person is going to say. And we fool ourselves into thinking that we've done the work: that we not only know what the other person will say but that we've thought about it before. Only, we haven't.

There are a number of potential barriers to retention, including:

  • Cognitive biases and selective listening (we will look at this in more detail later.)
  • Distractions, either internal or external (such as fatigue or a noisy environment.)
  • Issues with memory (such as Dementia.)

Responding

Conversations are active, not passive. A conversation between people cannot occur without a response.

Active listening requires careful responses which are made possible with comprehending and retaining.

An active response should show that we understand what the other person has said, have paid attention to their words and also read their non-verbal cues.

Ronald A. Heifetz writes that “The activity of interpreting might be understood as listening for the song beneath the words.” To be an active listener, we must try to go beyond the words and form a rich picture of the other person’s emotions and intentions. However, we must also avoid inventing meaning or colouring their words with our own thoughts. The same potential barriers apply to responding as to retaining and comprehending.

To be an active listener, we must try to go beyond the words and form a rich picture of the other person’s emotions and intentions.

Active Listening and Overcoming Cognitive Biases

Active listening requires an understanding of how cognitive biases and shortcuts impact our communication. These are particularly prevalent when people are arguing and disagreeing.

Consider the following hypothetical argument between a couple, Mary and John. Any resemblance to your marriage is purely coincidental.

Mary: You never help around the house, you came home drunk twice last week, you forgot to pick the kids up from school, you never buy me flowers, you—
John: I bought you flowers on Valentine’s day!

In this instance, John is succumbing to confirmation bias in order to refute Mary’s statements. Ignoring the other claims, he responds to the one which he can easily disagree with. John fools himself into believing that because he can refute one statement, they are all false.

John: I bought you flowers on Valentine’s day!
Mary: That was the first you’ve brought me flowers in 5 years.

John is now falling prey to availability bias. He remembers one event which was recent and salient, while ignoring the preceding times.

Mary: That was the first time you’ve brought me flowers in 5 years.
John: So? None of my friends buy their partners flowers, even on Valentine’s day.

Social proof is now coming into play. John has looked to their peers for clues as to how he should behave. Rather than considering how Mary feels, he is reassuring himself that his behavior is fine because it is common.

Mary: Anyway, the flowers you brought me that time were wilted and you clearly got them from the gas station on your way home.

Here, Mary is seeing a distorted view of events due to her current anger (bias from hating/disliking.) An event which previously made Mary happy is now only further evidence of her partner’s inadequacy.

The examples above are just a few of the numerous cognitive biases and shortcuts which impede our communication.

Now, let’s imagine how this argument might have gone if John had used active listening techniques.

This would necessitate putting aside emotions and ego and rather trying to understand why Mary is upset.

Mary: You never help around the house, you came home drunk twice last week, you forgot to pick the kids up from school, you never buy me flowers and I’m sick of it.
John: So, you feel I am being a bad parent, ignoring your needs, and allowing my social life to interfere with our relationship?

John is now paraphrasing what Mary has said, confirming that he is listening. It's important to note that John is not outright agreeing with Mary. Rather than seeking to defend himself, he is making sure Mary knows he is listening.

By keeping calm and showing open body language, he can then allow Mary to finish venting her frustration without interrupting. This provides a safe and secure environment for Mary to open up and express her true feelings.

John maintains eye contact and uses nonverbal cues (such as nodding and tilting his head to indicate he is listening.) Mary relaxes a little, seeing that her partner appears to be truly interested in what she has to say.

Then, John can speak:

John: What can I do which would make you feel better about our relationship?

This question is neutral and not related to personal opinion. John has allowed Mary to explore her feelings. By continuing in this way, they can turn an argument into a valuable opportunity to understand each other better.

The result in this situation is likely to be far more positive than the initial example. Even just by reading the words, you probably pictured both scenarios somewhat differently, complete with altered tones of voice and outcomes.

Active Listening as a Means of Overcoming Conversational Narcissism

If you have ever been in a conversation with someone who is only interested in talking about themselves, you will understand what conversational narcissism is and how it makes you feel.

Sociologist Charles Derber first observed the phenomenon, wherein people allow their self obsession to manifest in their conversational practices. Rather than listening to what the other person has to say and responding accordingly, many people shift the discussion to themselves.

In Inarticulate Society: Eloquence and Culture in America, Tom Shachtman writes:

[Conversational Narcissism] is pervasive and rooted in our culture of individualism, a pattern that leads to self-absorption … by the use of ‘I’ statements, by boasting, by the tactic of asking questions only in order to demonstrate the questioner’s superior knowledge or to top the other person’s story with one’s own, and by continual shifting…The most frequently used written word in the language is ‘the’, but the most frequently spoken word..is ‘I.’

Derber describes this as the ‘shift response’ as opposed to a ‘support response.’ In The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life, he writes:

The subtlety of the shift-response is that it is always based on a connection to the previous subject. This creates an opening for the respondent to shift the topic to himself … when serving narcissistic ends, shift-responses are repeated until a clear shift in subject has transpired … The effectiveness is the shift response as an attention getting device lies partly in the difficulty in distinguishing immediately whether a given response is a sharing one of a narcissistic initiative.

Conversational narcissists will often repeat shift-responses until the conversation steers towards them. Again.

Returning to our hypothetical couple, this might look like this:

John: I’m just really stressed about work at the moment.
Mary: Me too, you wouldn’t believe what one of my coworkers did yesterday.
John: And it’s hard for me to pay enough attention to the kids when I have this much on my plate and just want to relax when I get home.
Mary: Seriously, what she did was ridiculous.
John: What did she do?

In this conversation, Mary repeats the shift-response until John finally gets the point and switches the topic away from himself.

The narcissistic nature of this is obvious in a conversational transcript but can be difficult to identify.

Support-responses are the opposite of shift-responses — they sustain the speaker’s words and encourage them. If Mary had used support responses, the conversation might look like this:

John: I’m just really stressed about work at the moment.
Mary: Why is it more stressful than usual right now?
John: Well, one of the people in my team is on holiday for a couple of weeks and I keep getting landed with their usual responsibilities.
Mary: Have you spoken to your boss about that? You shouldn’t be doing someone else’s job as well as your own.

Notice how different those two scenarios sounded in your head.

In the first conversation, Mary was purely narcissistic and just wanted to talk about herself. In the second, the couple was able to understand each other a bit better and to see a potential root cause of their conflict.

Conversational narcissism also occurs through passive behavior.

Derber writes:

Passive conversational narcissism entails neglect of supportive questions at all such discretionary points and extremely sparse use of them throughout conversation. Listening behaviour takes place but is passive. There is little attempt to draw others out or assume other forms of active listening. This creates doubt in the other regarding the interest of their topics or their rights to attention … A second very common minimal use practice involves the … delay of background acknowledgements. Although weaker than supportive questions, background acknowledgements such as ‘yeah’ or ‘uh huh’ are nonetheless critical cues by which speakers gauge the degree of interest in their topics.

As Derber illustrates, we must not underestimate the importance of our responses when it comes to active listening.

The other person does not care if we listen with great attention if our responses do not reflect this. In some cases, a comment or question is necessary. Often, a simple acknowledgment is sufficient.

In The Plateau Effect, Sullivan and Thompson explain the folly of conversational narcissism:

Most people listen with intent to do something – usually to defend themselves, or to solve a problem. Nearly everyone listens with the intent of having something ready to say as soon as the speaker is finished. Have you ever wondered how crazy that is? Shouldn’t there be a pause once in a while, as one of the speakers actually thinks about what to say, or even better, thinks about what has been said? Here’s a phenomenon you’ll observe repeatedly if you look for it: Two speakers, appearing to be carrying on a conversation, but really just giving two monologues, split up by each other, each one waiting simply for time on whatever stage he or she imagines to be on…Listeners usually can’t wait to leap to their own defense, and spend their time thinking like an attorney who’s planning a closing argument rather than hearing what’s being said. You can imagine how ineffective this is.”

How Can We Improve Our Active Listening Skills?

While there is no one method for learning to listen actively, there are a number of small changes we can make.

Active listening, like any skill, is developed by practicing, not by reading about it. By applying the concept to each conversation we have, we can gradually develop the ability to communicate well. This might include:

  • Educate yourself on common cognitive biases and shortcuts. Learn to spot them in yourself and others and to see how they impede communication.
  • Avoid trying to respond immediately. Allow the other person time to finish speaking, then provide a considered response. Consider first if it is a shift or support response.
  • Minimize conversational narcissism by keeping track of your use of pronouns. An over-reliance on ‘I’ and ‘me’ can indicate a desire to steer the conversation towards yourself. Aim to make liberal use of ‘you’ instead.
  • Adler recommends taking notes during key conversations. Although this may be disconcerting to a speaker, it is relevant in some situations. Adler writes: “The notes you take while listening record what you have done with your mind to take in what you have heard. That record enables you to go on to the second step…What you have notes…provides you with food for thought.”
  • During an argument, accept that people are rarely willing to change their viewpoint. Instead of becoming enraged or frustrated, seek to develop a clear picture of the other person’s logic. Using the Socratic questioning technique can be helpful for drawing out this information. Using active listening, it is possible to turn an argument into a calm discussion, where you can explain your own thoughts. Adler explains: “The logically sensitive speaker will ask you to follow his reasoning by accepting his assumptions for the time being – accepting them to discern their consequences, to see how they lead to the conclusions he wishes to arrive at…they are not axioms or self-evident truths…your task is to be on the alert to detect the initial premises…that provide the ultimate grounds for what is being said.”
  • Increase your motivation to listen. This is known as the affective framework for active listening. This motivation might be the desire to improve a relationship, follow instructions without wasting time, make someone feel better or to make an exchange as clear as possible.