The Three Challenges We Face When Trying To Understand Others


Monday, 5.46am

Sheffield, U.K.

Anthropology, n. The study of all humans in all times in all places – Mike Wesch, The Art of Being Human

What is anthropology?

Where do you begin when you need to understand how someone else is thinking?

What’s in their mind, what kind of approach are they thinking of taking, how can you work out what it means for them and you?

How can you make sense of what is going on?

The field of Anthropology gives us some clues.

Anthropology is about people, wherever they are, and understanding what makes them tick.

It is a very wide subject – you can think about people in terms of biology, archaeology, society and culture, or language – or all of them at the same time.

It is one of the very few sciences that look at societies across the globe, rather than focusing on Western culture.

But can it help us do better business?

Anthropology and business

You can think of any business, one you work in or are trying to work with, as a small society in itself.

A business is, after all, a collection of individuals who have come together.

Some businesses have a few members; they are a small tribe, while others have thousands, hundreds of thousands, and are like countries.

Each business will have a way of doing things that they have developed over time that works for them.

This way of doing things, this structure, may be almost invisible to them – it’s just the way in which things are done around here.

You can think about that structure in different ways – in the relationships, the politics, the economics and so on.

For example, think about your business – the way people are hired, the way decisions are made and the way money is allocated – and you’ll see how you’ve created your way of doing things that is going to be different from the business in the next building.

If you want to work with others, and you will have to do that as an individual or for your business, you have to realize that they are different from you and make an effort to understand them.

And there are three hurdles you will have to overcome – three tempting ways of thinking and acting that will stop you from being able to appreciate and understand the people you want to work with.

This is my way

The first of these is called ethnocentrism – being the center of your own world.

You know what you know and have beliefs and values that you hold dear – sometimes unconsciously.

You may have gained these because of your training and your experiences but, regardless of the source, they have a powerful hold over how you think.

A classic division in a business is the difference between engineering, accounting and legal.

If you have an engineer, accountant and lawyer in a room, each one will probably think that they have the most important job, the one that’s most vital to keeping the organization going.

Each professional speaks a different language, believes in different things and finds it very hard to see things in any other way than the way they see them.

What is a no-brainer for the engineering is a conundrum for the accountant and an impossibility for the lawyer.

What is an option for an accountant is impossible for an engineer and a loophole for a lawyer.

What you’re seeing in these situations is a clash of cultures, an inability to appreciate how someone else thinks and feels.

And that’s because they have to learn a particular way of thinking first.

My way is the right way

This way is called cultural relativism and comes down to being able to see things the way others see them.

You’ve heard of the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

That’s an ethnocentric rule.

The platinum rules says do unto others as they would have you do unto them.

That’s cultural relativism in action.

Cultural relativism is taking the time to listen, to ask questions, to seek to understand what is going on from the point of view of the other person involved.

For example, one of the reasons engineers cannot understand why accountants don’t go ahead with an idea is because they don’t see how accountants look at ideas in the first place.

An engineer might think in terms of whether something works or not, and if they can make it cost effectively.

If something can be made better and you can make money by doing it then surely you should go ahead?

The accountant, on the other hand, may be thinking of things like the impact of the project on budgets and cash flow, and whether there is any room for a new expense at all.

How do these two individuals reconcile their differences?

You’re doing it all wrong

The most common approach people take is to try and get other people to change the way they do things.

This might be expressed in debates in meetings, in contributions to policy papers and in negotiations about calculation methods – but it comes down to one thing.

You’re looking at this wrong and it would be much better if you did it my way.

This approach almost inevitably leads to conflict as both sides dig in and nothing gets done.

Engineers carry on doing things the way they do them, looking for projects and creating business cases.

The accountants keep doing their thing, reviewing cases and rejecting them.

And nothing actually gets done or changed or improved unless someone else gets involved and makes the decision for them.

The way to change this behavior is by changing the way you interact with others – through something called participant observation.

When you look at someone else’s world from the outside then you can’t really understand it, it’s like standing on the beach and looking to see how fish interact in the water.

You get a dim view but to really see what’s going on you need to get your fins and snorkel and duck underwater.

If you’re an engineer the best thing you can do is spend a lot of time with accountants and learn how they see the world.

When you do that you’ll be able to go back to your own world and look at projects in the way an accountant would and put forward opportunities that they will see as attractive in the way they see them.

But you’ll never be able to do that as long as you persist in being an observer, at keeping at arms length.

This is something technology people find particularly difficult.

“Give me the specs,” they say, “And I’ll build you a system.”

The problem is that no one actually knows exactly what the specs should be and it’s only by getting involved that you will understand what people are trying to do and how you can help them out.

The first step to fixing a problem is understanding what’s causing it.

And the three things that stop us from being able to understand others are thinking that the world revolves around us, that the way we do things is the right and only way and what we need to do is change others to be more like us.

These ways of thinking lead to conflict and misunderstanding.

Now that you know what’s in your way the next thing to do is understand how you can fix this.

Let’s look at that in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

Can We Be Scientific In Our Approach To People?


Sunday, 6.52pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge – Carl Sagan

What does it mean to think scientifically?

One way of looking at this is to see a scientific approach as one that has a body of accepted knowledge and a collection of methods that are used by practitioners.

The difference between this and a non-scientific approach is something that only one or a few people believe in and where the methods are opaque or known to a few.

Or is it?

In 1962 Thomas S. Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, an essay that observed that arguments around method were much more common among scientists who studied people than scientists who studied stuff.

Stuff is simple, you look at it, break it down, pour stuff on it, spin it, roll it, burn it… and all the time you learn more about it.

But that doesn’t mean stuff is easy to study.

Take electricity, for example.

Did you know that the battery was invented because people thought that electricity was like a liquid that moved through other things and so if you could bottle it then you would be able to store and use it later – like hot sauce?

The first batteries were literally built using jars, designed to hold liquid.

Kuhn argued in his essay that it was very hard to tell what was “proper” science – if you looked at it carefully you would have to accept that the way people looked at the world a thousand years ago was just as scientific as the way people look at the world now.

People don’t change when it comes to how they think – brains are pretty much the same design.

What happens is that the body of knowledge they take for granted is taken for granted for only as long as people agree it’s true.

Now, that is actually quite a revolutionary statement.

It means that truth is temporary – it’s the case until something better comes along to replace it – something that changes things fundamentally.

Kuhn called this a new paradigm.

Now, this approach works very well in the “hard” sciences – but when it comes to people the arguments about methods and paradigms have a habit of carrying on.

If you have a scientific mindset then you come at things from a view that there is a “right” answer.

And this doesn’t work with people.

Let’s look at how people who work with people deal with things.

Take lawyers, for example.

If you ask a lawyer a question, there will be a sucking in of the breath, a low whistle, as they contemplate all the ways in which things can go wrong and how you will argue your position.

If you have ever been in a commercial negotiation you will have seen how this “people” problem plays out in practice.

There is a temptation to get all “scientific” about your approach – to do lots of modelling and maths about what’s possible.

That’s why any venture capitalist wants your assumptions and five-year projections – that’s an attempt to make you apply the methods of science to your thinking.

In practice, however, people only follow the mathematical reasoning when you’re not worried if you lose or if the issues aren’t that important.

The people who are in the room when they make the decision are usually the ones who understand people.

But, hold on a second, you say.

Surely everything online is now about analytics – about the way in which people respond to A/B tests and isn’t that completely scientific?

If you look at it you’ll probably find that it comes down to people skills again.

If you’re selling something online then you need to answer people’s questions and put pictures on that look good.

It’s not that hard to do that, so now if you want to win you have to cheat.

People buy on price, but if you’re the cheapest you’re probably shipping straight from the manufacturers, probably from overseas.

It’s quite hard to tell from most listings where something comes from – people are trying quite hard to stop you asking the question – hoping you will buy the cheap option.

If you’re not the cheapest then you have to pay to climb the listings – to be “boosted” by paying to be higher up.

These techniques work when the item is cheap – a few dollars.

But when it comes to large items, a car for example, people are much more careful, but they’ll still go with impulse purchases.

Is this kind of thinking scientific?

From one point of view it’s a bunch of hypotheses that can be tested – you can try different things and see how people respond.

But it’s biggest application is when you’re buying stuff – we’re back to stuff again.

If you’re studying stuff or selling stuff then a scientific approach is very helpful.

As you get away from stuff and move into people’s minds, it gets harder – people can’t be broken down and studied like stuff.

Not their minds anyway – not what makes them them.

But obviously we have to try, which is where the arguments about method come into play.

What kind of methods should we use if we want to understand other people?

Let’s look at what the field of people has to say about this in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

How To Stop Being The Expert In The Room And Instead Be A Facilitator


Saturday, 6.32am

Sheffield, U.K.

I have a lot of empathy, and I think that’s where mothering starts. You are there to empathise and facilitate. – Viv Albertine

The world of experts is over – we just haven’t realised it yet.

Sometime in the last five hundred years people realised that knowledge was power and if you could bottle and control knowledge you could control others.

If you could make them believe that you were the expert and they were there to listen and follow what you said then you would effectively own them.

The problem is experts have a track record of making bad decisions.

Don’t treat people as things

There’s a great line in one of Terry Pratchett’s books that goes, “Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.”

Just think about that in the context of a school, for instance.

Imagine you’re a teacher going into the traditional classroom many of us went to – the one where you stand in front of rows of students, and act as an expert, delivering information for the audience to quietly absorb.

Now, you may be the kind of teacher who knows the names of every student, knows about them and what they are good at and what they want to do with their lives.

Or you might be the kind that sweeps in, sees a sea of faces, delivers a message and sweeps out again.

Regardless of what kind you are the chances are that you have to think about students as statistics, as numbers, as things that have to meet certain standards.

If they don’t then you could get punished individually as a teacher or a school.

It’s clear to any observer that the education systems in most places have a problem – and well meaning people are trying to fix it – by treating everything they can see as a thing.

The buildings, the teachers, the students – they’re all things that can be measured and manipulated and moved.

Is it too harsh to say that has led to evil?

Perhaps – but you can hardly say that what’s happening to young people as they go through many education systems is good.

And “not good” is a step in the wrong direction.

What can we learn from teachers who are trying to do this better?

Help people learn the way they do best

In teaching there is a movement called “Flipping the Classroom”, which in essence is a shift from a lecture based environment where the teacher is an expert to a learning based environment where the teacher is a facilitator.

What’s the difference?

In a traditional classroom most of the time is spent delivering content – standing in front and lecturing to the students, with less time allocated for practice and discussion.

In a flipped classroom, less time is spent delivering content – and more time is spent on practice and discussion.

The details of how this is done can be found in other places – but I particularly like the material from Lodge McCammon about his approach to flipping the classroom.

We can also use this idea of flipping in our own professions.

Take consultancy, for example, a traditionally expert based profession.

Consultants get called in because they are the experts, or so they would like to think.

A consultancy sales pitch will often stress their expertise – try and get across their years of experience and superior knowledge of the subject matter.

This can mean they end up lecturing quite a lot during a pitch – spending most of the time talking about themselves.

How would you turn this pitch around.

You’d start by throwing out everything about yourself – the introduction and history and client list.

That will save you twenty minutes.

Get straight into the situation that you think the client is facing – and briefly describe what’s going on.

For example, let’s say your business is to help businesses sell better online, spend five minutes talking about what the key factors are that contribute to success when it comes to digital retail.

Then, open the conversation up – ask participants how easy or difficult each part of that is for them – let them tell you what is going on in their business.

With that simple step you’re moving from lecturer mode to facilitator mode.

What you’ll find is that people learn by talking things through – resaying things in their own words.

In any pitch you know you’ve gotten the message across when the participants stop talking to you and start discussing the idea themselves – putting it into the language of their business and using their terminology.

That’s when they really get it – really understand what you do.

The better you get at facilitating the conversation the better you will be at selling yourself.

Knowledge is worth nothing and everything

You can’t really charge for your expertise any more.

That’s because there are fundamental problems with the entire supply and demand economics of the knowledge business.

First of all, the supply of knowledge is endless – when you sell what you know you still have it.

Secondly, any one who doesn’t know what you have to tell them can’t tell whether it’s worth anything.

It’s like a book – you can’t tell if it’s any good until you’ve read it.

If you want to be paid for your expertise, then you will find that it gets harder in a world where you are not already the recognised expert.

And the experts get there by putting out lots of material for free – they show you everything before they ask you to buy anything from them.

It’s a strange thing, knowledge.

Its value comes not from giving it away but by helping others get it.

And when you move your way of thinking from seeing people as things to people as people it changes the way you help them get knowledge.

For example, the traditional language of marketing – funnels, prospects, hooks, leads – should make you very uncomfortable.

This kind of language dehumanizes people, it treats them as things, as objects that flow through your marketing system.

And this results in a huge amount of effort being put into manipulating people – and it’s done at every level – most obviously with the media and politics, as you can see if you simply read the news.

But that’s a different problem.

Here’s the takeaway.

When you help people learn, you’ll get paid in turn.


Karthik Suresh

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

What Novels Show Us About The Way People Talk To Each Other


Tuesday, 5.40am

Sheffield, U.K.

An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind. – Mahatma Gandhi

What happens when two people talk to each other in a novel?

Take a detective story, for example – there are characters you will come across again and again.

There is the pompous, overbearing and arrogant superior.

And there is the fiercely independent protagonist, haunted by the ghosts of her past.

How do you build that story, show the conversation?

Dialogue in a story is built on conflict

A novelist throws away all the real-life words, all the “ums” and small talk and leaves in the dialogue that matters, which the characters shoot at each other like arrows from a bow.

Each line is meant to pierce, to wound, to provoke a reaction.

If the lines didn’t make you feel angry at one character and sympathise with the other the novel would be dull and lifeless – the conflict is what wakes you up and draws you into the story.

Behind every well crafted line, behind every armour piercing delivery, is an unspoken aftershock of implied intent.

The clueless person in charge, for example, has total belief in their own competence, has manoeuvred their way into a position of absolute power in that situation and acts with what they believe to be good intent towards others which, for them, is the same as what’s good for them personally.

The tortured hero, has a history of her own, with a background and experiences that makes her distrust people like the person in power – people who have betrayed her in the past.

And so she keeps things from the questioner, responding to questions with questions or carefully veiled answers, which in turn causes the person in charge to get angry and push further which in turn causes more resistance – and now you have conflict and the start of a story.

Does this mirror what happens in real life?

Making your point

Have you ever been in a meeting where a lot of people had a lot to say?

The topic was an important one and different people had different approaches and ways of thinking about it.

Each one barely listened to what others had to say, they were too busy waiting for their turn to say what they thought.

And, wherever possible, they were quick to point out flaws they thought they saw in the arguments of others.

This is perhaps the norm rather than the exception with meeting.

People often talk to win, not to share and listen and learn.

Decision is reached based on what the people who control the levers of power think, rather than what kind of consensus is reached.

The person with the loudest voice or the most dominating personality often carries the day.

This approach, it has to be said, is a masculine one, focused around the idea of winning.

But the opposing approach, a feminine one, has issues of its own.

A feminine approach may be better at talking and listening, letting people say their piece without leaping to conclusions.

But it’s not necessarily non-judgemental, politics and gossip and relationships will play their part in how the levers of power are distributed and how decisions are taken.

Unsaid or implied conflict is still conflict, whether aired in a masculine or feminine way.

Does this kind of conversation really help us understand each other better, or do we instead get better at arguing our own point of view?

Take your position and dig in

This conflict ridden approach to communication is the one we see most often all around us – from the home to the workplace to the people who run the country.

The process of debate and argument is supposed to lead to better, mutually agreed outcomes but all too often leads to simply showing you who is powerful and who is not.

Think about the last discussion you had with your child, for example.

Was it resolved through the peaceful use of a negotiated settlement or was it ended through exercise of power – with you imposing your will or them walking away and refusing to engage?

A refusal to cooperate is also a power play – one that people with less power can use quite effectively.

In fact, politicians these days have learned that their objective is not to do what is best for their people.

Their objective, as professional politicians, is to win.

So, they only talk to the people who will support them anyway, who agree with their views, and to people on the fence.

The other side is of little importance.

What matters is that you fortify your position – you dig in and stick to your guns, your arguments, whatever the attack.

But what do you do if you actually want to understand the other person’s point of view?

We’ll look at that next time.


Karthik Suresh

How Do We Tame Our Brains?


Monday, 5.36am

Sheffield, U.K.

Everything we do, every thought we’ve ever had, is produced by the human brain. But exactly how it operates remains one of the biggest unsolved mysteries, and it seems the more we probe its secrets, the more surprises we find. – Neil deGrasse Tyson

What do we know about our brains?

Dedicated people have spent and will spend lifetimes trying to understand that, working to generate science about what happens in the brain and how it works.

But there are some things that we can see for ourselves.

There is clearly something about the human brain that is different from most animals – we have extra bits that do things most animals don’t seem to bother about.

If we know there is a difference, how does that helps us understand the way we communicate?

Animals and their responses

The natural world encourages its inhabitants to focus their attention on developing the ability to stay alive.

In the wild most creatures learn to develop a healthy distrust of anything new.

They spend time looking for food, avoiding predators, marking and defending their territory and finding a mate.

Many species evolved to live in groups and some developed the ability to use sound to signal intent.

Birds sing to attract mates, monkeys call to warn others of approaching danger and lions roar to warn off contenders.

It’s tempting to superimpose human feelings – fear, anger, lust – onto animals but whatever it is they actually experience what we can see is that they use sound to express themselves.

And that sound making is not about reasoning and thinking but about making it clear what their feelings are about the situation – there’s danger approaching, I’m ready to mate, you’re in my space.

Realising that sound is first and foremost about feelings may help explain a whole lot about how humans miss the point when they talk to each other.

And you can first see this happening with children.

Children and their responses

A child’s brain comes with the newer components that make up a human brain, but at the beginning they’ve not been programmed yet.

A child responds instinctively from the moment it’s born – seeking food, crying when scared or hungry or tired, and quiet when it feels safe.

Once again, sound is inextricably linked to feelings in a baby and it that strong link remains as the child grows up.

If you have children you will know that you spend most of your time trying to help them get better at managing their feelings – and you know how they feel because their volume levels go up.

The few moments after a child wakes up, you as a parent wait for the first request to come in.

“Can I watch TV?”

If you say “No,” there’s an instant emotional reaction – a foot stamp, a frustrated outburst, maybe tears.

Children aren’t shy about showing you how they feel.

As we get older, these feelings don’t disappear – but we get better at hiding the way we feel from others.

Adults and their responses

We help our children and spend our time as adults working on taming our brains, managing our reactions to things that cause us to feel in certain ways.

We learn how to do this from others, from society.

We learn by watching what the adults in our lives do, modelling their behaviour.

Often, however, do we learn to manage our reactions or do we just learn how to hide them better under learned patterns of behaviour?

We learn, for example, that if someone attacks us we should call the police instead of fighting back.

That doesn’t stop us feeling angry and wanting to attack – but the layers of socialisation, the programs we have loaded into our brains over time help us respond differently.

As adults, we may learn how to mask our feelings with a veneer of behaviour – and the way we do that is often through language and habit.

Societies have developed habits over the years like having norms for what they consider good habits.

They’ve also come up with language that helps them express themselves more effectively.

But we still can’t control the kind of reactions and feelings people have when they see what we do or listen to what we say.

For example, you may have grown up with the idea that it’s good manners for a gentleman to hold a door open for a lady.

A modern, independent woman, however, may feel like she doesn’t need any man to open a door for her – that’s a patronising way of saying that she can’t do it herself – and gets angry at the gesture, which was intended to be good manners.

Or take a statement like, “Pass the salt.”

For a native English speaker, that’s rude – where’s the please?

People who speak languages where there is no separate word for please – where politeness is built into the structure of the language itself – find it hard to understand that they’ve caused offence simply by translating what they want to do into the equivalent English form.

With communication, feelings come first

If you want to get better at communicating with others and, in particular, getting better at listening, you have to realise that the sounds we make show the feelings we have first and foremost.

The thinking and rationalisation comes later.

The right word, the right reaction can cement a lifelong friendship while a stray word, the wrong gesture can permanently dent a relationship.

And the only way we can really understand the others around us, from our children to our co-workers is to take the time to listen to them.

And there are very few models that tell us how to do this effectively.

We should start looking for some.


Karthik Suresh

Why What You Hear Changes The Way You See The World


Sunday, 6.35am

Sheffield, U.K.

The basic premise that children must learn about emotions is that all feelings are okay to have; however, only some reactions are okay. – Daniel Goleman

The course of my life changed with a word.

Just one word, a choice I made, between saying “can” and “may”.

I was asking a teacher if I could do something and I started my request by saying, “Can I…?”

I was reprimanded, told in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t.

A little while later, the teacher asked if I knew why permission had been refused and said it was because I hadn’t said, “May I…”, and was being rude.

That happened a long time ago and it doesn’t matter if it was right or wrong – words and usage evolve and the grammarians have mixed views.

But what did happen was that I avoided that teacher, in the process not taking courses where I might have to be taught by that person that were a more natural fit for my interests and aptitudes – ending up closing off options for particular careers and going down a different road.

I have had an expensive education but I am not sure it has been a good one.

Some people have teachers that inspired them, ones that stood out and that helped them make something of themselves.

I can’t remember any of those – they were good people, doing a good job, but I am not sure any of them were life-changing in that way.

I took more from seeing how my parents did things.

I wake up early in the mornings and write and work because my father does and did that, like his father before him.

When I was struggling with studying my parents sent me to a friend who taught me how to keep notes – introducing me to ideas that I still use today.

And, above all, books have been my teachers – words that thoughtful people have set down to illuminate their thinking about a subject.

In the beginning was the word

We often think that communication is about what we see – the belief that most of it is non-verbal.

That view is popular but not what the research actually says – what is said is just as important as how you say it.

As is what is heard.

The thing that makes humans different from animals is not our ability to communicate but our ability to think about what is said and respond.

How can I prove that statement?

I can’t really, so at this point it’s worth a digression into how I plan to explore the ideas that I’m going to write about in these posts.

For example, how would we think about biology and language?

Language is clearly not something restricted to humans, not if we take language to mean a form of communication.

Birds tweet, bears growl and whales sing – they’re all communicating.

The topics they’re talking about are fairly essential ones – there’s danger coming, you’re in my space, call for a good time.

Humans do this kind of talking as well, probably most of the time.

But we’re also able more complicated thinking, the kind of stuff that seems uniquely human – like what is language and how does it work and why is it different.

Why do words matter so much and how can we learn to use them better?

Creating models of what’s going on

Now, we could look at the structure of the brain and learn about the layers that are involved – learning about the actual biological basis.

Or we could come up with a model that helps us explore the idea.

For example, we could think of the human brain as an animal brain with an extra bit stuck on that does the “human” specific bits.

That animal part is the older bit, the bit that in us as a result of millions of years of evolution and the human bit is the newer bit – added more recently.

Something like a high-powered graphics card you insert into your older PC to make it work better.

When information comes in it’s processed by the animal part and the human part – and what happens next depends on how that processing goes.

Let’s look at this model as an object in itself for a minute.

It’s built using common sense – stuff that you can see and think about for yourself.

And there’s a little bit of research in there – stuff you might have heard about or the kind of brain science introduction you might read in a magazine.

You could be quite pedantic about it – do the information signals flow to the animal brain first, and then the human or the other way around, or do they both get the data at the same time?

And if you know the answer then it can help with how you refine the model – but even if you don’t you can still use the model to ask questions and see if it helps you to make sense of what seems to be going on.

The model is a temporary structure, a transitional object, an intellectual device – something that helps us think and talk about what is going on.

Its job is not to be right – we’ll leave that to the scientists.

Its job is to be useful.

As we progress through this Listen book project, this is the approach I will use to make sense of the ideas I come across and try to explore in these posts.

And we’ll start by looking at novels and why they are bad examples of good communication.


Karthik Suresh

Introduction to the “Listen” Book Project


Saturday, 6.30am

Sheffield, U.K.

So when you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it. – Jiddu Krishnamurti

Two days ago, on the 6th of August 2020, I finished the first draft of my first book project.

Yesterday, I tried to reflect on the experience, thinking about what went well, what didn’t and what I would do differently.

And today I wondered… what should I work on next?

The art of listening

As I looked through my files I found a folder of slips that I had been collecting around the idea of being a better listener.

The art of listening seems to me to be one of the most important skills that we could learn or teach our children.

Being able to understand and empathize with others will help you become more successful at whatever you do.

But are you sure you even know what the word empathy means?

I was confused about it for a while.

Many people think that empathy is the ability to feel what other people feel – but it’s not – that’s more akin to sympathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand how someone else sees and thinks and feels about their world.

You don’t need to agree with people to have empathy with them.

You gain empathy through listening and asking questions and reflecting on what you’ve heard.

Human beings are the only creatures we know of with this ability, and we use it in a variety of ways and in a variety of fields.

For this project I plan to draw on fields including biology, history, journalism, teaching, child-rearing, law, psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, religion, negotiation, sales, philosophy, anthropology, language, culture, engineering, design thinking and systems thinking – and any others that may be helpful in learning how to listen better.

Planning another book

I felt like I raced through my first attempt at writing a book, going over things quickly and talking about things rather than talking through them.

I think this will show up in the edit.

I think I will come across passages where I talk about something without having introduced or explained it first.

I tried to link the various posts as I went along, referring to the previous one and talking about what came next, a technique I learned from a YouTube video series, but I’m not sure it was the right approach to take.

Instead, I think I might try and think in terms of “nuggets” or “information blocks” – each post containing a self-contained class of ideas and methods that you can call on when you want and combine them in an order that works.

In case you missed it, that’s an object oriented metaphor from programming, which could be a novel way to look at structuring a book – something else to explore later perhaps.

When the individual classes/nuggets/blocks are done I can link them together following the structure of the book and add any linking information needed to bind it all together.

The act of rushing through the writing, trying to get it all down in one sitting has also led to longer posts – posts that are harder to read and probably will be harder to edit.

I feel like it’s probably worth trying to cover less but go deeper with each post – because what I want from each post is for it to be useful for someone reading it in its own right – rather than having you go away and read ten more to figure out what it’s talking about.

And that’s going to take some practise and perhaps more planning up front to distil the essence of the idea into what I need to cover.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve given myself a million words to get better at this writing thing, and so far I’m on 866,659 words, so there’s still 150,000 or so of practise time left – about a year’s worth of writing.

Research methods

The other thing I’d like to do with this project is get better at managing the research around the book – becoming more intentional about the sources I use and how I use the ideas that are in them.

This relates to the epistemology – the means to gain knowledge that are used here.

I started life being trained to see the world as an engineer – full of problems to be solved.

I have since learned to see the world as complicated and confusing, but one where we can make a difference if we take the time to understand one another.

Logic alone will not help us do this, maths won’t, technology won’t.

If we want to address the little and big problems in our lives – from the kinds of relationships we have with our spouses and children to the challenges of climate change – we will have to do that by understanding other people better.

And that starts with being able to listen, really really listen.


So, the working title of this book is “Listen: the art of understanding others” and over the next sixty to eighty days I’ll be working through the first draft in these posts.


Karthik Suresh

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