What Are You Trying To Listen For When You Listen To Someone?


Tuesday, 5.24am

Sheffield, U.K.

The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do. Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

It’s hard to see things from another person’s point of view.

Your own opinions, views, ways of thinking about the world keep pushing forwards, getting in the way.

And the way we see things causes us to judge the way others say they see things as we listen to them – and that’s something we have to stop doing if we want to understand what’s going on.

So, how do you do that?

How individualistic is your approach?

Cultures around the world vary in the degree to which they balance individual freedom against the needs of the group.

Then again, there is no such thing as a “culture” – it’s a way of doing things that emerges from the way in which individuals go about doing things in the context in which they exist.

A romantic notion of the individual is one where there are no constraints on you – if you want to do something and believe in yourself then you can do anything.

If you look at your social media feed right now the chances are that there is someone pushing the idea that success comes down to hard work and effort.

If you agree with this then the natural thing to do is work harder on yourself – push yourself to the limit.

If something doesn’t work out then focus on what you can do to change.

This kind of thinking is internally focused – it looks at you in alone.

Now, turn this around and think about what happens when you listen to someone else while bringing along your assumptions that what matters is the individual.

You could listen very carefully and ask lots of questions to understand how that person thinks, what they’re all about.

If they were a circle you’d fill in everything inside – you could see them for what they are and understand what they stand for.

Or at least, what you think is important from an individualistic viewpoint.

After all, you might ask questions like, “What’s important to you?” or “What do you want to achieve?”

Is this going to help you get somewhere, to move things on?

Does the environment matter?

It’s hard to imagine anyone who is truly completely individual – someone who does not have to depend on anyone else.

Most of us are part of a web of connections to other people – we have families and friends and work with colleagues in organizations.

If we were truly individual, like marbles that were free to roll anywhere, then there would be no restrictions on us at all.

But in reality we’re almost always connected to other people, connected within networks.

In fact many of us spend a lot of time trying to increase or strengthen those connections.

And, as a result, we are inevitably constrained by the connections we have built, by the strands we have put in place.

For example, when we’re young, we could do anything but we’re going to stay with our families until we feel safe.

When you go to university, away from home for the first time, it’s common to quickly find a group where you feel safe and welcomed and stick with that group for the rest of your time there.

And it’s the same when you join the world of work – when you’re part of a team or have an organizational system where you have a role to play.

It’s much easier to imagine situations where you’re part of a group than ones where you are truly on your own – in fact being on your own is probably quite an isolating and worrying place to be.

What this also leads to is the notion that much of what is possible for you to do depends on the nature of the situation you are in and the kinds of connections you have with others.

Your background matters – if you come from a family or community that has business experience then you will probably find it easier to access capital than someone else.

If you come from a family of musicians then becoming an artist is going to be much easier for you.

Yes, in theory anyone can do anything but book learning is not enough – you need practical experience.

You can get that through an apprenticeship, through learning through practice – but it takes time to get to that point and it all depends on the availability of the opportunity to do what you want to do.

When you look at things in this way you start to appreciate that getting results matters just as much on the environment you are in as it does on what you want to do as an individual.

What does this mean for you as someone trying to listen and understand and move something on?

Listen to see the web, not just the individual

What this means is that you really need to practice seeing the context, the environment, the situation if you want to make a difference.

For example, let’s say you’re trying to understand why a person finds it hard to lose weight – you could focus on them as an individual.

Why don’t they have the willpower to stop overeating, what kind of diets have they tried, what will work for them?

Or you could try to understand their situation – do they have a job that requires long hours and they need to grab food on the go and make something quickly?

Do they live in a food desert and where they find it hard to buy fresh food, relying instead on packaged and processed stuff?

What are the constraints and environmental conditions – how does their family operate, what do their friends do?

Without an understanding of what normal looks like for them can you really make a lasting change in their personal situation.

The thing you need to appreciate is that what things are like right now is the natural result of the system of which that individual is a part.

Stafford Beer, the British theorist, coined the term POSIWID – the point of a system is what it does.

It’s a simple statement but a crucial one to understand if you really want to learn how to listen more effectively.

What you see in front of you results from the system that exists – and the purpose of your questions is to illuminate that system – the nodes and connections that make it up.

We’ll look at ways to approach that task in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

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