When we talk about understanding, surely it takes place only when the mind listens completely – the mind being your heart, your nerves, your ears – when you give your whole attention to it. – Jiddu Krishnamurti
Do you ever wish that life were simple.
Perhaps you actually believe that it is – that if you work hard and have clear goals the universe will make things work for you?
You just have to be positive.
On the other hand, has anything about the life you’ve lived so far actually been simple?
Think back to the crucial life decisions you made – what to study, where to live, who to marry – each of which have changed the course of your future.
Most of us, when we look back, will not see a straight line – important decisions made logically leading from one point to the next, always leading to success.
Instead, we will see a series of related choices, choices that emerge from and are constrained by previous choices and actions, and that are made in the light of potential future choices and actions.
For example, I grew up in India, a country where we are all told to become engineers.
There are many reasons but the most important one for me was that studying engineering kept future choices open.
If you study something technical, something that is “useful”, then you can make a living.
Then you can figure out what you want to do with your life later.
This decision logic is shared, I am sure, by hundreds of thousands of other children right now.
And there is truth to this.
If I had studied something I really liked – like history or writing, then that would have been a different life.
How might that have worked out?
Perhaps well – with professional success and recognition.
Perhaps less well – with few prospects for jobs and a limited income.
But the real point is that looking at yourself, someone you know very well, and really understanding what you’re looking at is hard.
Really, really hard.
So how much harder is it to look outwards and see what is out there – really see it for what it is?
Tools for seeing
Mike Wesch in The art of being human writes about the basic tools of the anthropologist: communication, empathy and thoughtfulness.
These tools help you enter someone else’s world and look around.
You can’t tell what’s going on in someone else’s mind unless they tell you – and sometimes they don’t know what’s going on until they get the chance to tell you.
For humans thinking and talking is inseparable – the act of putting we think into words affects how we think about the things we’re thinking about.
The first skill we have to master, then, is how to communicate.
How, you might think that’s simple – communication is something you do all the time.
But it’s easy to do it poorly, it’s too easy to see things the way you see them and assume that others see things in the same way.
It’s easy to jump to conclusions, decide why people do things, assign motive to their actions and come up with explanations for why things happen the way they do.
For example, have you ever had to do a sales pitch that fell flat, that didn’t connect with the audience.
Did you walk away fuming, believing that the people in the room were clearly not intelligent enough to get what you were saying – they couldn’t see what was in front of them, what was obvious and true?
It seems natural in such situations to react emotionally, with anger and resentment when things haven’t gone your way.
And you could resolve to do things the same way the next time, double down on your message.
Or you could think about it – think about what just happened.
The second tool, thoughtfulness, is about reflecting – about going back over what happened and trying to understand it better.
Why did that pitch fail?
Is it possible that you assumed that the listeners knew something that they didn’t?
Is it possible that they didn’t know enough to know that their strongly held beliefs were flawed in some way?
For example, most people have no real concept of how their lives are affected by global markets.
If you buy something that has copper in it then the price for that copper depends on the trading history for that commodity – which so far this year has swung pretty wildly.
Now, if you understand markets but the person you’re speaking to doesn’t – they you might as well be speaking different languages.
Much of what you say will simply not be taken in.
But the person you’re speaking to may have strong opinions of their own.
For example, many people believe that house prices will always go up.
Perhaps that’s true in the long term, most things tend to see an increase in valuation if you look over a long enough period.
That doesn’t mean prices always go up in a straight line.
Just take a look at a chart of house prices and you’ll see up and downs, and whether the price goes up for you depends on where you enter and exist that cycle.
When you get away from things like markets, which are on the whole understandable, and get into other subjects like strategy or positioning or motivation – things get much harder.
And you’re only going to understand what’s going on by asking questions and thinking about the answers.
If you do this well then what emerges is understanding – an insight into how someone else sees what is going on.
That understanding is empathy.
Empathy is something that emerges from the way you talk to others and think about what they are saying.
Let’s to back to that sales pitch.
If you spend less time pitching and more time asking questions that help you understand how the people you’re talking to think and the kind of situation they are in, then you will be in a better position to work out how you can help them.
Being able to ask good questions is the starting point.