Why You Need To Let People Discover Contradictions For Themselves When You Listen

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Tuesday, 5.35am

Sheffield, U.K.

He had very few doubts, and when the facts contradicted his views on life, he shut his eyes in disapproval. ― Hermann Hesse, The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse

What you see clearly may be completely invisible to the person you are talking to.

In my last post I wrote about the process of listening, of gathering information and starting to construct a model of what you were hearing.

Now, the process of modeling is something you are doing all the time, even as you listen.

You’re taking what someone is saying and interpreting it, recreating it in your mind and coming up with images, structure, relationships that help you make sense of it all.

When you start to lay it out using external memory aids such as index cards or concept maps it makes it easier to see what’s going on and one of the things you will start to notice is how often people hold views that appear to contradict each other.

And you have to watch yourself, be careful as you explore these areas because people get annoyed if you point out inconsistencies in their arguments – if you want them to engage with you then you need to learn how to help them see those contradictions for themselves.

For example, I come from a culture that is frugal and self-reliant.

It’s hard for me to spend money on anything.

Now, that approach has helped in certain ways – I’ve learned how to manage risk, how to invest and how to avoid irrational responses.

At the same time this approach has limited my ability to use leverage, to draw on other people’s money and other people’s time to create more value than I can on my own.

I am always happier when I don’t need to rely on other people.

But, of course, I have to.

In fact, I rely entirely on the work of others to do anything I do.

I rely on a community of free software developers who have created the infrastructure that means I can write and program and create without having to pay a giant corporation or hand over control of everything I do to someone else.

Every thought I have is derived from the work of other people – individuals who took the time to do and think and reflect and write.

So we have this tension between the individual, alone and self-sufficient, and a society which makes it possible for us all to do what we want by making it possible for us to cooperate through social and economic processes.

A few days ago I wrote about how you can use holons to model social processes or human activity and used the example of Republicans and Democrats.

The difference between the two, it appeared, came down to whether you worked to promote the rights of the individual or the common good.

But, as you can see from my discussion above, it’s not an either-or.

It’s a both-and.

The only way you can make it possible for individuals to be free is by having a “good” society.

The fact that people can believe in one thing and ignore the arguments and facts that contradict what they want to believe is a form of cognitive dissonance – a disconnect between what they think and say and what they are and do.

You’ll see this in sitcoms where you have a character that believes he (and it’s normally a he) is irresistibly cool and charming and is anything but – and it’s clear to everyone but him.

What examples of these do you find in business?

Well, they are all over the place – and you’ll see them once you start looking.

It’s there with people who say they want to collaborate but who plan in most cases to appropriate or recreate your ideas and methods.

It’s the person who says they want move fast but when it comes to decision time need to go through years of committee meetings and decision processes.

It’s the people who say they want to do things differently and encourage change and then get very uncomfortable when someone proposes modifying anything.

What’s important, as you listen to what someone is saying and collect information, is that you notice these differences and then, instead of pointing them out, you ask for clarification.

For example, if I was in a meeting where someone was talking about doing something in-house versus buying it from me then the question I would have is how open the person is to outside help.

Some businesses have a policy of doing everything themselves – which often stems from a founder’s fear of being dependent on anyone else.

And you’re not going to change that mentality, not quickly anyway.

But they’ll never tell you that, not up front, because it doesn’t sound like the kind of thing a modern, fast-growing business does.

So you have to dig, carefully, unearth what is likely to happen.

And the way you do this is through questions – like “can you give me an example of how you used an outside supplier?”

Not how will you use one, but how you used one in the past.

If you ask people about the future, you invite speculation and made up stuff about how they will act.

If you ask about the past then you’re on firm ground – if they haven’t done it so far that’s the best indication that they won’t do it in the future.

Or they’ll tell you the conditions under which they’ll work with you, which will probably be onerous and transfer a lot of risk to you and try and protect their position as much as possible.

That’s the thing you have to notice with ideas, they’re like glass and they’re like steel.

You might listen to an idea and see it as easily breakable and the person talking to you will see it as invincible.

You only have to look at some our current world leaders to see this in action.

Now, you’ve listened, you’ve heard what someone has to say, you’ve explored the contradictions and learned where people are – what next?

You have to decide whether you can work with this person or not – if the contradictions are too great you’re better off walking away and not wasting more time – unless your job is to help them work through those contradictions.

But you have to decide if you want to do business.

If you do, then you need to think about how you’re going to move forward, what’s your proposal?

How do you take everything you have and pull it together in a way that makes sense and allows you to do the next thing?

Let’s look at that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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