Why Is It So Hard To Listen?

When I became involved with ‘knowledge management’ in a large science and technology organisation (over 10,000 staff), the subtle role of conversations became apparent. Sometimes even little asides or passing comments could lead to unexpected and interesting connections and occasionally even opportunities.

Persuing this topic further, it’s helpful to distinguish between discussions and dialogue (see table above). Most conversations are discussions as having a dialogue is actually quite hard (perhaps because we’ve all been educated that way?).

There is plenty of advice on how to promote dialogue between people but a lot of it seems to me to be rather theoretical and tricky to implement in practice. In fact a good test is whether the person promoting the advice actually does what he/she recommends, personally (from meetings and conferences) I had quite a few negative experiences! I don’t think it was deliberate, it’s just that true dialogue is really hard and takes work, a discussion is far easier (see again table above).

An important component of illuminating conversations is the art of (deeply) listening.

In this context, I came across this quote from documentary filmmaker Valarie Kaur:

“Deep listening is an act of surrender. We risk being changed by what we hear.

When I really want to hear another person’s story, I try to leave my preconceptions at the door and draw close to their telling. I am always partially listening to the thoughts in my own head when others are speaking, so I consciously quiet my thoughts and begin to listen with my senses.

Empathy is cognitive and emotional—to inhabit another person’s view of the world is to feel the world with them. But I also know that it’s okay if I don’t feel very much for them at all. I just need to feel safe enough to stay curious.

The most critical part of listening is asking what is at stake for the other person. I try to understand what matters to them, not what I think matters. Sometimes I start to lose myself in their story. As soon as I notice feeling unmoored, I try to pull myself back into my body, like returning home. As Hannah Arendt says, ‘One trains one’s imagination to go visiting.’ When the story is done, we must return to our skin, our own worldview, and notice how we have been changed by our visit.”

I found the first sentence quite powerful:

“Deep listening is an act of surrender. We risk being changed by what we hear.”

It made me realise that there is an emotional component involved, it’s not a strictly rational process. The power of the conversation is that it might change you, hopefully for better but also possibly for worse, and that is something you just have to live with. There is no certainty. From the last line of the quote:

“When the story is done, we must return to our skin, our own worldview, and notice how we have been changed by our visit.”

So after a dialogue, to benefit you need to be quite self-aware and that’s only something you can do yourself (through reflection etc). It’s a complicated but potentially highly rewarding process and experience.

Going back to listening, here are some additional aspects to think about (quoted from here):

a) We keep latching onto factual details: we go on about times, places, external movements – not realising that things become interesting only when people say what they feel about what happened, not merely what happened. 

b) We often get overwhelmed by an emotion we experienced and insist upon it rather than attempting to explain it. So we say, again and again, ‘it was so beautiful’ or ‘it was the scariest thing in the world’ but without accurately unpacking the feeling and thereby being able to make it live in someone else’s mind. 

c) Just when we promise to get a bit interesting with our narration, we take fright. We get scared of our own emotions, which can threaten to trigger feelings of unbearable sadness, confusion and excitement. We take flight into superficiality. 

d) Then we don’t stick with one story. There is so much in our minds, we keep opening up new subplots.

So when listening, stop your companion digressing; say things like, ‘So a minute ago you were saying that….’ Bring them back to the last coherent and emotionally ‘alive’ part of the story. Draw them away from numb surface details to deeper emotional realities. Ask: ‘what did that feel like for you…?’ 

Finally, and perhaps a tad more optimistically:

“That way, listening is no longer a chore. It’s about the most interesting thing we can do!”

Handling Doubt And Uncertainty

Interesting graphic from psychologist and author Adam Grant on common thinking styles. COVID-19 has certainly highlighted the differences. In particular, slowly the approaches that directly encompass uncertainty seem to be accepted and hopefully this might become more common in other areas too.

“The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty – some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.” – Richard Feynman (physicist)

The UK Sleep Census

I’ve suffered from insomnia for over 20 years and in the process tried many approaches and read many books on the subject. Although my case may be quite extreme, it does seem that poor sleep seems to be an increasingly common problem (at least going on news articles).

It’s better to have solid data though, so a UK Sleep Census caught my attention:

“This study is brought to you by the University of Oxford and the BBC, and aims to paint a detailed picture of how the UK is sleeping. By taking part in this study, you will be helping sleep researchers better understand personal sleeping habits across the UK, and the results will contribute to future work in this area. The results will also be presented in a special episode of Horizon on BBC2.”

There’s some background to the study here.

Benefitting From Quality Relationships

Therapist Esther Perel on the importance of relationships:

“Life will present you with unexpected opportunities, and you won’t always know in advance which are the important moments. Above all, it’s the quality of your relationships that will determine the quality of your life. Invest in your connections, even those that seem inconsequential.

Source: Tribe of Mentors

When I left my last full-time job in a big organisation, I thought about what I should take with me (anticipating future needs). So I took some presentations, notes and documents on various technical matters and some details on my key contacts. Most of these things weren’t useful as other organisations do things differently and you need adapt. In a way changing companies or even positions can be a good opportunity to unlearn some of the things you’ve picked up (sometimes unknowingly) and develop new, fresh ideas. What I didn’t really do was carry over my full network (I wasn’t using LinkedIn much so this wasn’t an option). I had exported an Outlook file but this wasn’t very useful in practice, it was just a complex jungle of communications and notes. In hindsight what I should have been doing is making my own personal notes on people, events, ideas generated that were quite seperate from the complex busyness of projects, bids etc. My information strategy should have been oriented around people and my relationship to them. It would have taken time and effort (the reason it wasn’t done of course) but would have been well worth it.

The Amazing Growth of London

Fascinating dynamic visualisation by Ollie Bye of the growth of London from Roman times until the present day. The legend is dynamic, as the years increase, new periods appear: Roman, Medieval, Tudor/Stuart, Georgian, Victorian and 20th Century.

I lived in London for 6 years as a student, although that was years ago now, spending time in both the wealthy western and much poorer eastern parts. Also, I spent a year in North London recently. In spite of this my appreciation and knowledge of London has always been fairly basic, primarily focused on the most popular areas. So I liked the animations as they give a feel for the bigger and far more complex picture.

Other interesting animations can be found on Ollie Bye’s YouTube Channel (History Through Maps). In particular, I liked the one on the development of Iberia as I’ve visited both Portugal and Spain in the last years (pre-covid). To be accurate, it sounds a very painstaking activity but well worth it (so far he has 253K subscribers).

I picked up this link through Jason Kottke’s informative and interesting site, which is well worth a look.

“Founded in 1998, kottke.org is one of the oldest blogs on the web. It’s written and produced by Jason Kottke and covers the essential people, inventions, performances, and ideas that increase the collective adjacent possible of humanity. Frequent topics of interest among the 26,000+ posts include art, technology, science, visual culture, design, music, cities, food, architecture, sports, endless nonsense, and carefully curated current events, all of it lightly contextualized.”

Goals And Getting A Taxi In The Rain

I came across an interesting story in Oliver Burkeman’s book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. In one of the chapters he gives examples of where adhering to goals can sometimes be dangerous or less than optimally productive.

The particular story that attracted me is rather prosaic, concerning the frustrations of getting a taxi when it rains (when many others want one too). A first guess would say that demand simply exceeds supply so it’s naturally harder to get a free cab. However it’s a bit more complicated than that, being linked to ‘performance goals’.

The original research was carried out by the economist Colin Camerer on New York taxi drivers. As they rent their cabs in 12 hour shifts, a common goal is to earn twice the cost of the rental. With this aim, when it rains, they meet their target quicker than usual and can then head home early!

“New Yorkers are thus deprived of taxis during exactly the weather conditions in which they need them most, while drivers are deprived of additional income at exactly the time when it would be easiest to earn.”

It’s a surprising story. Why do they do this, rather than show a bit of initiative and flexibility? Burkeman suggests that it can been seen as an example of how people are uncomfortable with uncertainty (an alternative viewpoint is that they just don’t care and put their leisure time above everything else). Either way, the drivers seem attracted to a rule that leads to a relatively predictable and orderly income versus seizing opportunities to earn more, although in a variable manner. Their reasonable sounding goals occluded thinking about things differently.

Making Tough Decisions

Impressive and insightful quote from Barack Obama:

“My emphasis on process was born of necessity. What I was quickly discovering about the presidency was that no problem that landed on my desk, foreign or domestic, had a clean, 100 percent solution. If it had, someone else down the chain of command would have solved it already. Instead, I was constantly dealing with probabilities: a 70 percent chance, say, that a decision to do nothing would end in disaster; a 55 percent chance that this approach versus that one might solve the problem (with a 0 percent chance that it would work out exactly as intended); a 30 percent chance that whatever we chose wouldn’t work at all, along with a 15 percent chance that it would make the problem worse.

In such circumstances, chasing after the perfect solution led to paralysis. On the other hand, going with your gut too often meant letting preconceived notions or the path of least political resistance guide a decision—with cherry-picked facts used to justify it. But with a sound process—one in which I was able to empty out my ego and really listen, following the facts and logic as best I could and considering them alongside my goals and my principles—I realized I could make tough decisions and still sleep easy at night, knowing at a minimum that no one in my position, given the same information, could have made the decision any better. A good process also meant I could allow each member of the team to feel ownership over the decision—which meant better execution …”

Ref. A Promised Land

Quantitative Versus Qualitative Research

I was once asked to find out how lessons learned in bids and projects were captured and shared in a large company. There were two approaches, a standard IT one that identified company-wide portals and databases, number of users/reports/views, ease of use etc. The other was to interview a selected group of people, partly to understand their approach plus to get their views (incl ideas for improvement). The results were broadly in agreement with the graphic above.