Tag: Philosophy

Active Listening

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

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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.

Philosopher Kahlil Gibran on The Tension Between Reason and the Silence Required for Thinking

Kahlil Gibran (1883–1931) published his masterpiece, The Prophet, in 1923. The work endures as a timeless meditation on the art of living. Gibran's thoughts on love and giving offer a glimpse into his genius.

Reminding one of the struggle most of us have with the three marriages, Gibran illuminates the beautiful struggle that exists within all of us between reason and passion.

Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgment wage war against your passion and your appetite.
Would that I could be the peacemaker in your soul, that I might turn the discord and rivalry of your elements into oneness and melody.
But how shall I, unless you yourselves be also the peacemakers, nay, the lovers of all your elements.

Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.
If either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas.
For reason, ruling alone, is a force confirming; and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction.
Therefore let your soul exalt your reason to the height of passion, that it my sing.
And let it direct your passion with reason, that your passion may live through its own daily resurrection, and like the phoenix rise above its own ashes.

As for his final piece of advice, on the tension between reason and passion, Gibran suggests something we should all take to heart, “rest in reason and move in passion.”

Just as there is a required solitude in leadership, there is a silence required for thinking. Increasingly, however, we use devices from iPhones and Echo's to entertain and reduce our ability to be present with ourselves. When it comes to Speaking and Talking, Gibran offers:

You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts;
And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and a pastime.
And in much of your talking, your thinking is half murdered.
For thought is a bird of space, that in a case of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.

There are those among you who seek the talkative through fear of being alone.
The silence of aloneness reveals to their eyes their naked selves and they would escape.
And there are those who talk, and without knowledge or forethought reveal a truth which they themselves do not understand.
And there are those who have the truth within them, but they tell it not in words.

The Prophet goes on to explore love, marriage, children, crime and punishment and so much more. Complement with German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer on the Dangers of Clickbait.

Get More Done By Working Less

In Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang argues that work and rest are not opposed but rather complementary to each other.

“When we define ourselves by our work, by our dedication and effectiveness and willingness to go the extra mile,” he writes, “then it's easy to see rest as the negation of all those things.”

Thus our cultural view of rest influences our relationship to rest, creating an aversion—the mistaken belief that rest is for the weak. Because we mistake rest as the opposite of work, we avoid it. This view, however, is flawed.

“Work and rest are not polar opposites,” Pang writes. Rather they complete each other. Some of history's most famous people from Charles Darwin and Bill Gates to Winston Churchill, took rest very seriously. Rather than prevent them from accomplishing things this was the very thing that enabled them.

Our aversion to rest is rather new. Almost every ancient society shared the view that work and rest were complements to one another. The Greeks saw rest as the pinnacle of civilized life.

Rest is not something given to you to fill in the cracks between work. “If you want rest, you have to take it” Pang writes. “You have to resist the lure of busyness, make time for rest, take is seriously, and protect it from a world that is intent on stealing it.”

What is rest?

We think of rest as binge watching Netflix and drinking wine but, while that's a form of rest, it's a flawed view that prevents us from resting more. “Physical activity is more restful than we expect, and mental rest is more active than we realize.”

In an interview with Scientific America Pang hits on what the brain is doing when we're resting:

The critical thing to recognize is that when we are letting our minds wander, when our minds don't have any particular thing they have to focus on, our brains are pretty darn active. When you do things like go for a long walk, your subconscious mind keeps working on problems. The experience of having the mind slightly relaxed allows it to explore different combinations of ideas, to test out different solutions. And then once it has arrived at one that looks promising—that is what pops into your head as an aha! moment. The people I looked at are able to construct daily schedules that allow them to draw on that process in little increments.

For creative people—or anyone who deals with complexity, long walks or even strenuous physical activity is an essential part of their routine. Just take a look at Thoreau, Nietzsche and Kant's views on walking.

Pang argues that a four hour “creative work day” is optimal for producing.

While we work 8 or more hours a day, most of that is just busywork. Effectiveness and total hours worked are two different things. Learn what moves the needle and focus your work efforts on that, ignoring or getting rid of busywork.

The Power of Your Subconscious Mind

We think that we're in control. We believe that our conscious mind directs our thoughts and somehow controls our subconscious mind. We're wrong.

In Richard Restak's The Brain Has a Mind of Its Own:

At the moment of decision we all feel we are acting freely, selecting at will from an infinity of choices. Yet research suggests this sense of freedom may be merely an illusory by-product of the way the human brain operates.

Restak gives the example of reading this essay. You scan the title and a few sentences here and there and eventually make a decision to stop reading or read on. You might then go back to the beginning and start reading, or you might start reading wherever it was in the article when you decided to stop skimming.

“The internal sequence,” Restak writes, “was always thought to be: 1. you make a conscious decision to read; 2. that decision triggers your brain into action; 3. your brain then signals the hands to stop turning pages, focuses the eyes on the paragraph, and so on.”

But this isn't what happens at all. “An inexplicable but plainly measurable burst of activity occurs in your brain prior to your conscious desire to act.”

The subconscious mind controls a lot of what we think and the connections we make. And, of course, our thoughts influence what we do.

In The Thinker's Toolkit, Morgan Jones recalls the story found in David Kahn's The Codebreakers.

Breaking codes in World War II was perhaps the largest big data project ever to happen in the world up until that point. The conscious mind could only do so much. One German cryptanalyst recalled, “You must concentrate almost in a nervous trace when working on a code. It is not often done by conscious effort. The solution often seems to crop up from the subconscious.”

Believing that the conscious mind calls the shots prevents us from understanding ourselves, others, and how to make better decisions to name but a few things.

In Plain Talk, Ken Iverson offers some insight on how to turn these thoughts into practical utility.

“Every manager,” he writes “should be something of a psychologist—what makes people tick, what they want, what they need. And much of what people want and need resides in the subconscious. The job of a manager is to help the people accomplish extraordinary things. And that means shaping a work environment that stimulates people to explore their own potential.”

We place too much emphasis on the conscious mind and not enough on the subconscious one.

Unless you manage your environment, it will manage you. The old question ‘would you rather be the poorest in a wealthy neighborhood or the richest in a poor neighborhood?' is based on how the environment controls our subconscious and our subconscious controls our happiness.

Focusing is an Art, Not a Science

Productivity is all the rage. People want to get more done in less time. Productivity systems abound: Getting Things Done, Pomodoro, the Seinfeld thing, etc. There’s certainly something to be said for each of them.

But have you thought about something a little simpler and more basic: How to focus? Like, really how to focus your mind on one hard, long project until it’s done?

Productivity systems are great in that they keep you accountable for getting lots of task-oriented work completed. But they don’t answer the larger question, which is: What do you do that creates value in your career? And more than that, what are you doing that’s going to have a cumulative effect, that’s really going to matter years down the road?

I see these two concepts as intertwined and incredibly important, and ignored by overly task-oriented productivity methods.

The first is figuring out where you’re going to create a massive amount of value in your career, The second is figuring out how you’re going to carve out the time and energy to focus deeply on the first.

The thing is, that type of work — whether it’s building a new product, writing a book, learning a hard subject, building a keynote speech, writing a complicated piece of software, whatever — doesn’t happen by saying “I’ll get to it”, and then allocating 15 minutes here or there in between checking your email and going to meetings.

It happens by stringing together sessions of deep, focused effort. Hours at a time, over and over. The intense kind where you sort of lose yourself and wake up later with a lot of awesome work done.

Learning how to do that kind of work, I think, is something of an art.

I say “art” for a reason. I see a lot of people out there promoting their “science-based” system for getting a lot done. Let me tell you something: The word science is being used to fool you and trick you. To make you salivate, Pavlov-style. “Science” is not some monolith that tells you how to create really meaningful work. There’s no “science” of success. There’s no “science” of productivity. That’s pure charlatanism.

Doing great work is an art. A group of researchers can’t answer the complex question of how to live and work correctly; the real world is too varied. We don’t live in a controlled experiment and we’re not lab rats, or worse, college students in psych labs.

Some scientific research papers can certainly give you hints on how the mind works, sure. They might even tell you a few things about information retention and task-based memory. I can see how that might be useful.

But that’s a long way away from creating a career you care about, where you regularly do focused, meaningful work that feels satisfying. Your life is not the one measured in the labs: You’re not trying to memorize flashcards or strings of numbers; what I’m talking about cannot be boiled down to rigorous science. (And anyone who reads Farnam Street knows the deep respect I have for real science.)

No — it’s art! Or more properly, artisanship. And the essence of being an artisan is that it’s deeply personal: It has to speak to you. You must be willing to put your soul into the game. This means everyone will go about the Art of Focus in their own way. It takes experimentation, dedication, and an understanding that no one can do it for you.

I even called a course I put together The Art of Focus, for this very reason. I don’t claim to have all the answers, or to “scientifically” solve your problems or fix your brain, like you’re a mouse in a lab. I just wanted to give people all of the tips and tricks I knew about doing focused, meaningful work, so they could build a system themselves.

Because the truth of the matter is that, however you go about it, you do need to build your capacity for hard, focused work. That is vital in an age of complexity, where we need to carve out a niche. Most of us aren’t making widgets anymore, and much of that work is being replaced by machines anyways.

And if you’ll let me be controversial for a second, I think that’s a good thing for humanity. Humans aren’t meant to live on a factory assembly line (or the white-collar equivalent – spreadsheets and Powerpoint). We’re meant to lose ourselves in valuable and satisfying work that smacks of originality and humanity.

I know a lot of finance people who want to switch into some related craftsmanship, or writing, or software-building, but not the other way around. Do you know any woodworkers who want to switch into finance? Do you know any writers who want to switch into corporate accounting? Me neither.

But in order to build an awesome career doing hard but satisfying long-term work, you need to build your ability to focus for hours at a time. You need to learn hard skills. You need to let go of multitasking, distraction, and the temptation to be “busy.”

I built the Art of Focus to get people started on that path, but I recommend doing it any way you feel comfortable. With apologies to Phil Knight, just do it.

Friedrich Nietzsche on Making Something Worthwhile of Ourselves

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) explored many subjects, perhaps the most important was himself.

A member of our learning community directed me to the passage below, written by Richard Schacht in the introduction to Nietzsche: Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits.

​If we are to make something worthwhile of ourselves, we have to take a good hard look at ourselves. And this, for Nietzsche, means many things. It means looking at ourselves in the light of everything we can learn about the world and ourselves from the natural sciences — most emphatically including evolutionary biology, physiology and even medical science. It also means looking at ourselves in the light of everything we can learn about human life from history, from the social sciences, from the study of arts, religions, literatures, mores and other features of various cultures. It further means attending to human conduct on different levels of human interaction, to the relation between what people say and seem to think about themselves and what they do, to their reactions in different sorts of situations, and to everything about them that affords clues to what makes them tick. All of this, and more, is what Nietzsche is up to in Human, All Too Human. He is at once developing and employing the various perspectival techniques that seem to him to be relevant to the understanding of what we have come to be and what we have it in us to become. This involves gathering materials for a reinterpretation and reassessment of human life, making tentative efforts along those lines and then trying them out on other human phenomena both to put them to the test and to see what further light can be shed by doing so.

Nietzsche realized that mental models were the key to not only understanding the world but understanding ourselves. Understanding how the world works is the key making more effective decisions and gaining insights. However, its through the journey of discovery of these ideas, that we learn about ourselves. Most of us want to skip the work, so we skim the surface of not only knowledge but ourselves.