How To Listen And Build A Map Of What You Hear


Tuesday, 5.32am

Sheffield, U.K.

A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected. – Reif Larsen, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

It seems that the act of talking is intertwined with the act of thinking.

The only time when someone delivers a logically connected set of statements, flawlessly working through an argument is when they are presenting something they’ve prepared earlier.

Think of a lecture or, even better, a TED talk.

TED talks are all about delivery.

The presenters practice for months, getting every word right so that they can make an impact during the brief period they are on stage.

But the thing you have to recognize is that something like a TED talk is a performance, a carefully choreographed sequence of memorized actions.

The rest of the time, when you’re talking to someone, they’re often working things out as they talk.

The act of talking helps them work through what they think.

But the thing about being human is that what people say tends to be connected to the things they say just before and just after.

You don’t speak in disconnected, random sentences.

You have clusters of ideas and then more clusters of ideas and there are connections between some ideas and other ideas.

What anyone has in their head appears to be best represented by the concept of a graph.

A graph, in this context, is described in the image above, and essentially has nodes and links.

There are different words for these, but it comes down to things and things that connect things.

Now, you can go down a bit of a rabbit hole when you start looking at graph theory – and there are lots of mathematical applications.

What I’m interested here is how graphs relate to the way in which we think about things.

The terms you will see used to describe this include concept mapping, cognitive mapping, semantic webs and knowledge graphs.

If you want to understand someone else’s point of view you start by asking questions – select something to talk about and begin a conversation.

That’s the first node, your starting point.

If you think about how such conversations go, all you have to do is keep asking questions and following the links and nodes as they are uncovered through the process of talking.

One thought leads to another which leads to another and then you take a step to the side start with a new thought and follow it along and at certain points you see connections between one thought and another that was expressed a little earlier and you make a note or draw a line from one to the other.

Does this approach seen familiar to you?

It should, because it’s just what happens naturally when we have a conversation.

The thing with talk, however, is that it’s ephemeral, words are said and then they disappear into the air.

What helps us preserve them is writing, the act of taking things down.

And that is where the tools we use also constrain us in how we do this.

If you want to get better at listening it’s crucial that your tool kit helps you capture the nodes and links that come out in conversation and that help you make the connections between them.

The first step is making the shift from linear notes, one after the other, to a map of notes, connected to each other.

Here’s a small example.


Now, just looking at this note from a while ago – it’s about thinking about risk.

If you’ve ever had to think about risk management, it’s an interesting exercise in frustration.

And since it’s topical, let’s take this note from 2014 and update it for use in a pandemic.

This might look something like the following.


Let’s take the response around the world to Covid as an example.

The first line is a particular form of showing how people thing about things following Kelly’s personal construct theory.

What this says, in essence, is that you tend to think about things in a bipolar way, somewhere between two extremes connected by a line.

For example if you’re President, you could think about a whole range of risks or focus on the ones that are really important right now.

That’s a construct, so back in late 2019 you could focus on growth and GDP or think about a small virus risk somewhere in a province far away.

You could either fail to analyze certain risks or you could analyze them.

Reports of a virus have started circulating, maybe you get sent a briefing that there are cases increasing.

It’s still far away, so you could fail to take action or take a particular course of action.

If you fail to take action you end up with infected people entering your country and the number of cases rising – you’ve stumbled into a situation and have to deal with that now.

But, if when you first heard about the virus, you had shut down all the airports, then what would have happened?

There were no cases in your country, no infections, nothing to show there was a problem and yet you closed everything down.

How can you possibly know if you saved lives?

You’ll probably be criticized for the economic damage but no one will see what you’ve avoided because it’s just not visible – it didn’t happen.

So, what governments have done is take a route that goes from 1 to 3 – they tend to analyze risks, but they don’t take action until they’ve stumbled into situations and are forced to do so – because now it’s clear that things are going wrong.

The problem really is that you get more credit for fixing something that’s broken than for doing unpopular things that avoid breaking things in the first place.

That’s just life.

But it’s interesting how mapping what happens helps make it easier to understand why policy is the way it is – why we have to lose all the ice in Greenland before we take action on climate change.

It’s a little depressing.

But at the same time if you can see it, if you can make the knowledge map here explicit and overt you have something you can show and talk about, perhaps something you can use to change how we naturally go about doing things.

Something that helps us balance points 3 and 4 and 6 in the picture above so that we go from analysis to action sooner with more justification.

After all, if we can see what’s the problem with the thoughts we have, perhaps we can do something about it.

Let’s look at some of those things in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

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