Why You Only See What Is Really There When You Let People Talk


Friday, 5.43am

Sheffield, U.K.

…perspective is a lie. If I know a pond is round, then why should I draw it oval? I will draw it round because round is true. Why should my brush lie to you just because my eye lies to me? – Terry Pratchett, The Last Continent

Why do people get so upset when they feel that you aren’t listening to them?

It may be hard to spot this in adults as they maintain self control – but a child will always oblige and tell you quite loudly when they think this is happening.

But what are they trying to say?

Which comes first, the thought or the word?

When you see a finished product, a book, a film, you see it as a whole, as something that exists.

But, how did it come into existence – how did the writer work her way through the book before it existed?

A writer often doesn’t know what’s going to be on the page until it’s written down, the process of writing is also the process of thinking through the content.

A first draft is often the writer’s attempt to understand the subject herself – it’s in later drafts that it gets reworked so it makes sense to others as well.

In that sense, writing is a form of talking to oneself – a way to talk through an extended idea and figure out what it means.

That process, in miniature, is what happens almost every time we have an interaction with someone else.

We rarely enter situations with completed thoughts in our heads – with a clear model of what we think.

It’s the conversation, the process of finding words, that tells us what we think.

For example, let’s say your kids are doing something to make you cross – they’re being noisy.

You storm over to tell them off and they look up puzzled, they’re having fun and aren’t quite sure why you’re standing there looking angry.

Do you march over with a clearly formed idea – or does it emerge as you look around and speak your mind- noticing the messy room and the stuff that’s been thrown around and the fact that you went in just as one sailed off the sofa and landed with a loud thump?

Then, as the children get teary and talk back to you – do they have a perfectly formed idea of what they are going to say or does it emerge through the words, as they try and get across to you what they were doing and why you’re ruining their fun and are the worst parent in the world?

When you think about it the ability to verbalize – to talk about something – is one of the most fundamental things that distinguish us from animals.

It’s a strange thought – after all, you’d assume that first you think and then you say.

But is it possible that what you say actually tells you what you think?

Talking and tools

The sociological theory of Social Constructivism suggests that we learn things by interacting with others – which makes talking really quite important.

How we talk is also influenced by things like the culture we live in – which includes history and language.

Research from the 1930s talks about how you can see that very young children and apes act in the same way when they have to use a tool.

But once a child is able to speak what they do changes dramatically, as the ability to talk through what they’re doing lets them do things that we would see as uniquely human.

In fact, the more difficult the task, the more we have to talk about it to figure out what to do with the tools we have.

It turns out that we can’t move forward, not solve it at all, if we aren’t allowed to talk through the problem.

It’s like being able to talk creates a new, virtual world where we can experiment and figure out what’s possible and try multiple approaches before we select one to actually try out in the real world.

Now, this has huge implications for the way in which we do things – and explains why so much of our activity is wasted, especially in business situations.

Flipping the sales meeting

Teaching and sales have a few things in common – the most visible one being that one person stands up and talks for most of the time and then leaves a bit at the end for questions and discussion.

This “lecture” approach is the way we traditionally sell.

If you get a sales meeting you go in with a pitch – a deck you work through.

In a 60 minute meeting you might spend 40-50 minutes going through your presentation and then leave a few minutes at the end for questions.

The vast majority of presentations work this way with the salesperson doing all the “work” and with the rest being passive listeners.

This might seem like you’re working very hard but the fact is that the audience doesn’t really take much in.

And that’s because the lecture is an efficient way to deliver information – but it doesn’t really help the audience really process it.

In a school or university setting that’s ok – the teachers can ask the students to go home and do more work to get their heads around what’s been taught.

As a salesperson you can’t ask your prospect to now go back and study what you said and get a better understanding of what you just said.

The pitch was the opportunity – that was it.

If you didn’t walk out of there without getting the audience to understand what you were all about then you blew it.

And there’s one simple way to avoid doing that – pitch less and let everyone talk more.

Instead of walking in with a 50 minute pitch, spend five, ten minutes explaining what is really important and then help everyone to have a discussion.

Create an environment where people can tell you what they think, bounce off other people’s ideas.

If you create the time for people to talk through things, and refine their thinking as a group you end up with a much richer picture of what they actually need.

And now, when you walk out of that meeting you have a plan – something that’s emerged through the discussion rather than a pitch which you then need to follow up with increasingly desperate sales calls to try and move along.

Stop looking for what you think is there

It’s very tempting to enter a situation and apply your perspective – the way you see things – to the issue.

But the way you see things is not what they are – it’s the thinking you’ve brought with you, created by your own history and ways of being.

That results in you seeing things in the way you want to see them and, in extreme cases, it stops you seeing the world in front of you at all.

You have to open your eyes, and see what is really there.

And to see through someone else’s eyes you have to let them talk – that’s the only way to really understand their point of view – their perspective.

Let’s talk about how to do that next time.


Karthik Suresh

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