i have been enjoying these conversations with Trevor Black from Swart Donkey. Back and forth five times on a topic with about 100 words a time. This is our third collaborative blog conversation, this time with a focus on Listening to the Listeners. i hope you will enjoy it.

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Trev: I loved the Free Speech board at my university residence. Most of the time it was empty, but occasionally it would burst into activity. The silence came in part because people were busy, but also because we suffer from what I call the Picasso Problem’. We are worried that our views aren’t ‘good enough’. I thought there were some people who were intelligent deep down in their bones. Now I think everyone is incompetent at lots of things and good at a few. Noisy people just tend to be less bothered by their incompetence. I would love to figure out how to hear more from the listeners.

Brett: i am actually about to write something on listening for my ‘How to Be an Ally’ series looking at helpful Race conversations. i suspect another problem might be that the loud ones tend to dominate the conversation and, combined with the rushed-busy-everything-in-an-instant generation we find, like you said, that incompetence can be instantly vomited out. One of the Ten Commandments of Communication Brian McLaren put together contains this one, ‘If you tend to be quiet, “step up”. If you tend to dominate, “step back”. If everyone could play that rule for a week, imagine what it would look like. How do we foster something like that?

Trev: I think we need to listen for how people communicate. “Stepping up” is just not something that appeals to some people. And I will speak for those who find it tough to not speak. I had a buddy who used to have a lot of fun with me. I would prep myself going into meetings to hold my tongue. To just listen. To not get passionately involved. He knew exactly the right thing to whisper to me just before a meeting to get me going. How people communicate is a part of how they are wired. They don’t change that easily. You can only tweak

Brett: i hear you, although a big part of me feels like we have been conditioned that way. If i have not had the experience of speaking, or if i had a bad moment of it, then i will identify myself as someone who doesn’t speak [also not me!], and sometimes it might just take a nudge or the right context to get speaking to happen. My wife and i have taken to throwing dinners with 6 to 10 people and then diving deeply into significant conversations which i think feels like a safe space for a lot of people not used to speaking out. But like you say, the not speaking for guys like us can be as much of a challenge.

Trev: Isn’t every part of our identity conditioned? Amy Cuddy does one of my favourite TED talks on the power of body language to shape ‘who we are’. I like the idea of using Drama techniques for communication. Part of why we don’t say things is because saying things is hard. Something gets lost between our mind, our tongue, their ears, their experiences, their feelings and their minds. Perhaps at the dinners you could allocate personas. The character could include a brief history and personality. But if we want to speak to who someone ‘believes they are’, we have to speak in the way ‘that are is’ and ‘that are understands’.

Brett: i agree that there is a lot of interference between what we say and what is heard. Which is why arguments online are so hazardous as it is almost impossible to detect tone from the written word. So face to face at least helps with that. But like you say, perhaps it is important to work first on making sure that we understand the communication styles and language of the person we are talking to before we attempt any kind of deeper conversation and wrestling. Or at the very lest do what you can to remove as many of the boundaries and obstacles to good communication as possible.

wave interference

Wave Interference by Bernice Abbott

Trev: There is an analogy to Investments here. One of the problems with Investing is that the feedback is very delayed. If you buy a business, you only know if that was a good decision 5 to 10 years later. Even then noise might mean you were just lucky. What you can focus on is the process. How the decision was made. With communication, we have spoken about how people don’t change their minds quickly and mid-conversation. We often think of the result of the conversation as whether someone changed their mind. More important should be the quality of the conversation. The process of the conversation. Whether or not they changed their actions will over time reveal itself. Time is powerful.

Brett: i think to add to that Trev, the idea that the conversation itself can be the important thing. i imagine it’s a typical western idea that we converse for a reason – an outcome, or an answer, or end point. Yet conversation as a relationship builder can be such a beautiful thing. Conversation for the act of conversation brings about a connection and listening and trying to hear and understand and intimacy and more. That is something we could probably do with cultivating more?

Trev: For sure. Conversation, kuiering, relationships, time, connections to things that matter. This is the stuff that gives life its richness. Debate  is probably something we spend too much time doing. There is probably a balance between the search for truth and the appreciation of truth. If you haven’t got an agreed kernel of something that matters to both of you, and a feeling that you enjoy each other’s company, there is almost no chance you are going to agree anyway. We change the way we feel first. We then make up an argument to back up our conclusions so they seem rational. Cultivating conversation is a beautiful thing. For its own sake.

Brett: Which perhaps brings us back to beginning of how do we hear more from the listeners? Perhaps it is up to us (those who tend to speak dominate) to work at creating safe spaces for others to engage in with a strong view on stepping back and observing more than directly participating. To foster spaces for all those beautiful things you mentioned in your last comment. But also by intentionally removing the overbearing or abrasive nature that we might bring to a conversation, hopefully inspiring those who speak less to feel more free to use the space well.

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This was our third in this series of Tandem Blog Conversations – if you missed the first two, here are the links:

Changing Your Mind Mid Conversation

Finding the Words

Make sure you check out Trevor’s blog Swart Donkey and follow him on the Twitterer @trevorblack

[For the next conversation between me and Trevor on Listening Better, click here]