One of Jordan Peterson’s rules in 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is to “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.” It’s simple advice, and it might even seem obvious. People usually only tell us things when they assume we don’t know what they’re telling us, so why wouldn’t we reciprocate by listening and gaining some insight we didn’t know? Even if we know what they’re initially saying, maybe if we’re patient enough they’ll get to new information that we haven’t heard before.
In one of Peterson’s classroom lectures, he mentions that according to the ancient Egyptians, attention, or the capacity to attend to things, was the highest psychological function. “Because it’s the capacity to pay attention that actually moves you beyond what you only know,” he says. This is a distinction from other civilizations, who often viewed rationality as the highest aim.
We know as consumers and business professionals the commodity that attention is. Getting people’s attention means they’re engaging with a product, choosing it over others, and maybe staying with it long-term.
But attention and the ability to focus on others can be used as a positive or negative. In a healthy relationship or interaction, attention is sought so something reciprocal can happen between the parties involved, or it’s sought so whoever is listening can help the person’s that’s speaking. The negative, which is worth noting, happens when people only listen in order to take advantage of others. And these advantageous people can of course be found in all walks of life.
I highlight these bad actors only as a note that they exist. Their sort of listening is wrong, and the fact that they exist is obviously not an indictment on professions or people that use listening morally. In reality, to listen effectively, especially over the long-term of a relationship, there has to be trust. The person speaking and the one listening have to know that they have a shared interest in getting to a certain result, usually to the common good for each other. Evidence for this happens over time as people share experiences and gain trust.
Listening will be its most successful when that trust is in place, and that’s when we can work with each other to get the insight needed to find solutions. That insight lets us know what’s happening in our organizations and lives, what needs to be fixed, if any problems need to be addressed, or what’s working so we can celebrate or recognize people accordingly.
These things seem self-evident, but it’s often that we only listen with the intention of waiting for the other person to finish so we can get in the conversation and make our point. This failed version of listening is the type that derails conversation, and keeps us from getting to the heart of matters. Even worse, we often approach conversation as a means to have our perspective win over, rather than an opportunity to get as close to the truth as we can.
In an interview with General Stanley McChrystal, a decorated military general who recently published Leaders: Myth and Reality, Peterson mentioned a fascinating note on listening between doctors and patients. I’m not sure of the source of the study he mentions in conversation, so I can’t share it, but Peterson says, “There’s research showing what makes a physician an effective diagnostician, and one of the markers is the number of words that the patient speaks compared to the number of words that the physician speaks in the first 15 minutes of their interaction. And the more words the patient speaks, the higher the diagnostic accuracy of the physician.”
That’s a telling insight. Something as critical as correctly determining a medical diagnosis in a patient is determined by an action that’s often hard for people to perform. How many diagnoses were missed because a doctor was in a hurry, too tired, or simply too impatient to stop and really listen? How many problems in our relationships, organizations, or our lives have we been unable to diagnose and fix because we couldn’t pay attention and listen?
If the more words we hear means the more accurate we’ll be in navigating whatever it is we’re facing, it means we have a practical solution to making sure we’re gathering all the resources we need to make something positive happen — that solution being to have less words than the other person. And this style of listening and attention, the intent, open, and patient version, is the one we need to successfully operate in the world around us.