Speakers are Eager to Impress

The last few days I have been writing about communication and asking what our communication is really all about if it is not just about facts and conveying information. When just talking to someone or communicating anything we seem to be including a lot of information that we are not even aware of. One of the things we are showing off in conversation is that we are someone who should be kept around, because we have useful insights and thoughts into the world around us.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler look at this point directly. They write, “Speakers are eager to impress listeners by saying new and useful things, but the facts themselves can be secondary. Instead, it’s more important for speakers to demonstrate that they have abilities that are attractive in an ally.”

 

In his episode of the Conversations with Tyler Podcast, Hanson describes it as showing off your backpack of skills and abilities. We want to show off that we know interesting facts so that people keep us around to hear more interesting facts in the future. We want to show how well connected we are with other allies so that people want to stick by us to get potential benefits from those insider connections. We also want to demonstrate that we are able to find out useful knowledge that might help someone else in the future. We might have just shared a simple or interesting fact about our experiences or something we learned, but it can demonstrate a lot more about us than we recognize.

 

Over time, we likely won’t remember where we heard information first. We likely won’t remember exactly who told us what, but we will remember who we have had good conversations with in the past, and people will remember that we had a lot of helpful things to say about a given topic. What we say in this moment doesn’t matter, as long as we develop a pattern of being helpful and insightful.

 

All of this is happening in our conversations without us realizing how much it is taking place. Conversation is natural, and we don’t want to seem like we are only engaging in conversation to get something useful from someone else, otherwise we won’t truly build any allies and friendships. The brain works better for us when it is not aware of its own motivations in this instance.

Where are the Greedy Listeners?

“If exchanging Information were the be-all and end-all of conversation, then we would expect people to be greedy listeners and stingy speakers. Instead, we typically find ourselves with the opposite attitude: eager to speak at ever opportunity.” Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write this in the book The Elephant in the Brain as they attempt to understand exactly what is going on with human communication. The obvious answer for why we communicate and dedicate so much of our brains to language, speaking, decoding sounds, and interpreting meaning from the sounds produced by human vocal cords is because our early ancestors gained an advantage when they could use language to communicate important messages. Saying, you go left and I go right is a lot better than grunting with hand gestures if you are trying to sneak up on a buffalo.

 

When we talk we convey a lot of direct messages. We can tell someone how much we love and care about them. We can explain to someone how their computer works and what they need to do to get their internet back. Directly talking to someone allows us to give them a recipe and enables us to learn about current world events. The strait forward answer for why we evolved language is because there is a lot of data out there in the world, and we needed a way to transmit the information we have gained from one head to another.

 

Simler and Hanson, however, believe that language and communication are doing something less obvious for us. One reason they believe more is going on than simply conveying messages is that we don’t hold people in debt for our communication. We don’t share an interesting or meaningful fact, and then expect the other person to communicate something meaningful to us. We may obtain information at a great cost – years of school, spending our time at the city counsel meeting, staying up late with influential people at a bar to get any tidbits they may drop – but we give that information away without demanding reciprocal payment.

 

A second piece of evidence against communication simply conveying messages has to do with how eager we are to talk. If we really were just communicating information, then we would be the most amazing listeners ever. After all, the whole reason someone was talking was to give us important information. We wouldn’t waste conversation space with meaningless talk about the weather, which we all experienced in the morning and could look outside to see. We would’t eagerly tell someone about what we saw on TV or about the funny thing our dog did. We would instead make sure we communicated valuable information and we would only do so reluctantly, particularly if someone else had given us valuable information which we had eagerly consumed.

 

The way we communicate doesn’t follow these expectations, and seems to be about something beyond just conveying information. Communication is about more than the message and more than what we have learned and can share about the world. Tomorrow’s post will dig further into this idea.

Curious Conversations

In The Elephant in the Brain authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson investigate human communication and ask why we are so quick to speak, communicate, and share information we have acquired, even if we acquired that information at great personal costs. Humans communicate a lot, and we generally like to be the one talking and expressing something about ourselves and our experiences. The problem however, is that it would make more sense for us to do all the listening, and only talk when absolutely necessary or when we were getting a reward.

 

If I spend a lot of time reading a book and learning something interesting and useful, I should desire a reward for the cost of learning the information I know. Before I write a blog post about interesting information, pontificate at the water cooler, or tell my family something I find fascinating, I should ask to be compensated. Instead, what we usually see, is that we can’t wait to tell people about the interesting thing we have learned. We expend a lot of effort in learning new information, and then we give that information away as quick as we can to anyone.

 

We also don’t do a great job listening. Rather than spending a lot of time absorbing what the other is saying, we prepare ourselves for what we are going to say next, missing the entire thing that is actually being said as we mentally prepare for our turn to talk. From an economic standpoint, this does not make sense.

 

“We aren’t lazy, greedy listeners. Instead we’re both intensely curious and  happy to share the fruits of our curiosity with others.” Write Simler and Hanson, “In order to explain why we speak, then, we have to find some benefit large enough to offset the cost of acquiring information and devaluing it by sharing. If speakers are giving away little informational ‘gifts’ in every conversation, what are they getting in return?”

 

I’ll explore this idea a little more in coming posts, but the authors argue that conversation is not really (at least not solely or even primarily) about conveying information. We do a lot of group and alliance signaling in our conversation. We show how creative and insightful we are. We demonstrate to others that we are willing to go learn new and useful information that can benefit the whole group and we show how altruistic we are by sharing this information which we acquired at a great cost. These are important but often unrecognized or unacknowledged parts of our communication. When we speak and when we share information, we are doing much more than just telling people what is inside our head.
Conversations

Paying Attention to our Conversations

In our general lives, conversation is interesting. What is interesting, however, is often how uninteresting our conversation actually is. When we talk to each other we never really have a full conversation with lots of data, with great background context, or with a lot of acknowledgement of other people’s thoughts or experiences. A lot of time in our conversations we more or less just ramble on about something or other about which we have vaguely formed ideas.

 

When I think about the general conversations I have at work, most seem to fit the model I described above. I started a new job recently and I have not had that many opportunities to really engage with my colleagues to understand their histories, thoughts, and opinions. Most of our interactions are relatively surface level, which means we are never really getting into the weeds of life or anything important. Colin Wright described this in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be. He writes, “Without access or context, we can only deliver empty words or lackluster, heartfelt but misguided opinions. And unfortunately, that could accurately describe many of our conversations.” For me, I feel that many of my conversations truly are like this. I either end up not fully knowing much about my conversation partner or the subject at hand and that leads to me feeling out of the loop in the conversation and unable to provide any useful or interesting input to the conversation.

 

I don’t think we need to include footnotes in every conversation referencing where our thoughts and ideas come from, and I don’t think we necessarily need to provide everyone with or request from everyone a perfect biographical story for them before we ever have a conversation. I do think, however, that we need to build new spaces and opportunities to have deeper conversations with people. We can spend more time talking with someone about the forces that have driven their life and who they are, rather than talking about whether a sports team won a game, whether its really hot or cold outside, or about what happened on a TV show. We can spend some time thinking about the kinds of questions which would elicit interesting answers or conversation from ourselves and then try to turn those questions back on the people we would otherwise have surface level, context-free conversations with. By being interested in others, we can start to work toward more intentional and meaningful conversations.

 

Wright continues, “We don’t always hold ourselves to the highest of standards when it comes to conversations, and considering that a good deal of what we believe is derived from these interactions, it’s unfortunate that we don’t have a better mechanism for ensuring we’re not reinforcing unbacked opinions or false facts, causally and probably unintentionally.”

Advice Monster

In his book The Coaching Habit, Michale Bungay Stanier suggests that we all have an advice monster living inside us.  The advice monster knows what is best for everyone. It knows how to solve the worlds problems. It is a genius and has no faults. It knows other people so well that it doesn’t need to listen to their problems or thoughts because it already has everything figured out for them ahead of time. In fact, the advice monster knows other people better than other people know themselves and it understands social problems and infrastructure problems and monetary problems better than experts and academics who spend their whole lives and all their time working through and thinking about such problems.

 

The short and more accurate description of the advice monster is this, the advice monster is a jerk. It lives inside us and wants to pop out and shout at every moment. And this idea of the advice monster is backed by science. Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain why humans evolved to have advice monsters living inside of us. Speaking takes energy, and sharing advice and insights from what we learn overtime gives away our hard earned knowledge basically for free. We should have evolved to be stingy speakers and eager listeners, hungry to take in valuable information about where there is good food, about what dangers lie ahead, and about who to follow on Instagram. But instead, we evolved to speak and shout knowledge about for everyone to hear.  When someone else is talking rather than listening we spend all our time thinking about what we should say next, rather than listening for any helpful info they can give us.

 

The evolutionary explanation from Simler and Hanson is that we are simply showing off when we speak and we evolved to do this. We evolved to show off our mental  toolbox. The things we have learned, the observations we have made, the dots we have connected, and the insights we take from what we see and learn are valuable, and we want to display that to the group we belong to so that others will see us as valuable allies. We have an advice monster because we are political social animals, and to survive as part of the tribe we needed to show our value, and what better way to be valuable than to have novel information about building tools, about where food can be found, and to be able to tell stories that help improve group unity.

 

Unfortunately today, the advice monster is ruining lives and destroying relationships. Coaches today cannot simply let their evolved advice monster run the show, or the people they coach will never grow. Bungay Stanier offers a quick haiku to describe the way we should be coaching once we cut out our advice monster:

 

“Tell less and ask more.
Your advice is not as good
As you think it is.”

 

Expanding on the idea of the advice monster, he writes, “We’ve all got a deeply ingrained habit of slipping into the advice-giver/expert/answer-it/solve-it/fix-it mode. That’s no surprise, of course. When you take the premium that your organization places on answers and certainty, then blend in the increased sense of overwhelm and uncertainty and anxiety that many of us feel as our jobs and lives become more complex, and then realize that our brains are wired to have a strong preference for clarity and certainty, it’s no wonder that we like to give advice. Even if it’s the wrong advice–and it often is–giving it feels more comfortable than the ambiguity of asking a question.”

 

Listening doesn’t feel good because it doesn’t engage our evolutionary biology. Nevertheless, it is the way to actually solve other people’s problems. We never truly understand them and their problems as well as we think we do, and certainly not as well as they do. The key is to ask questions and encourage others to find the answers they already know exist. This pushes the advice monster aside and helps us actually be useful for the person we are supposed to be helping.

Habitual

At the beginning of his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier says that we could all be better coaches by asking more questions and giving less advice. From one-on-one meetings, to chatting with a co-worker about a tough relationship situation, and even to dealing with a toddler or teenager, having a habit of asking questions rather than giving advice would make us a better coach or conversational sounding board. But our natural inclination is to give advice. Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler in The Elephant in the Brain suggest that we jump into advice giving because we are eager to show how much we know, demonstrating our skills, wisdom, and talents to gain prestige in other people’s eyes. What Bungay Stanier demonstrates however, is that our natural reaction is counter productive, at least if we actually want to be helpful for another person and help them grow.

But Bungay Stanier accepts that change is difficult, particularly because we as humans are creatures of habit, “…A Duke University study says that at least 45 percent of our waking behavior is habitual. Although we’d like to think we’re in charge, it turns out that we’re not so much controlling how we act with our conscious mind as we are being driven by our subconscious or unconscious mind. It’s amazing; also, it’s a little disturbing.”

I wrote recently about my love-hate relationship with routines. I love the habits that routines build and the productivity and time saving quality of a good routine. At the same time, a consistent routine seems to rob me of my mental decision-making powers, and time seems to move in a way where I am just a passive viewer and not an active driver of my decisions and actions. The habitual aspects of our life don’t seem like they could add up to 45% of our day, but I do not doubt it to be true. Any time I have tried to make a serious change in my life, I have been confronted with the power of habits that become baked into my daily routine and life. Leaving work and driving home directly, rather than to the gym, can be easily become a subconscious or unconscious habit in a way robbing us of a conscious decision to workout. Checking my phone can easily become automatic, and something I don’t even realize I have done until I notice I am putting my phone back in my pocket.

I don’t think there is a need to abandon all habits and try to force ourselves against any particular habit. But I do think there is a need to be aware of our habits so we recognize when we are making decisions and when we are following impulses and acting without really thinking about what we are doing. Much of Bungay Stanier’s book is about realizing the times when we act impulsively in conversation. Particularly, he calls attention to the times that we offer another person advice without really understanding their situation. He encourages us to change our conversation behavior to ask more questions so that we, and our conversation partner, can think more deeply and find more thorough answers by improving the way we think about an issue. This can’t be done if we are not aware of what we are saying or if we are simply acting habitually in our conversations and discussions. Self-awareness is a step toward addressing a habit, by allowing us to realize the opportunity for making a choice versus acting out of habit. Once we build that self-awareness and practice it in conversations, we can begin to be more effective coaches and conversational partners.

Asking More Questions

Michael Bungay Stanier starts one of the chapters in his book The Coaching Habit with a quote from Jonas Salk, “What people think of as the moment of discovery is really the discovery of the question.” This quote is fitting because Bungay Stanier’s premise in The Coaching Habit is that as coaches we too often focus on giving orders, directing people, telling others what should be done, giving advice, or filling up all the meeting time doing the talking. What he suggests we should do more of as coaches is let other people talk while we focus on asking more questions and listening. The job of the coach, in his view, is to get the individual speaking and to constantly ask further probing questions.

Asking more questions is not just about constantly asking why or how come. It is about listening to the individual and getting them to describe the situation more fully to identify what they believe they could have done differently in a given situation to get a better outcome. The individual you are working with is the expert in their life, even if they don’t know it. You, no matter how well you know the other person, are not truly an expert in their life and any advice or direction that you provide will necessarily be short sighted and leave out important factors.

I recently read Robin Hanson’s The Elephant In The Brain in which he argues that much of human behavior is guided by motivations and agendas that we keep secret, even to ourselves. Our behaviors are shaped by goals and desires that we don’t necessarily want to share with others because they are self-serving and potentially break with social norms. If we assume that everyone is acting based on self-interest and hidden motivations at least part of the time, then we have to assume that as coaches we don’t always know the best answer to another’s problem. If we are coaching and working with someone, we can ask questions that get them to think about their true motivations and build self-awareness. It would be defeating to try to force and individual to state their hidden motive, so we should not question it too relentlessly, but we should help kick start the other person’s introspection.

Ultimately, asking questions helps you and the other person better understand themselves. You giving advice does not help the other person because it is advice and direction coming from your limited perspective. A better approach is to ask questions that help expand the scope of consideration and perception for the other person. Your answers are incomplete and don’t lead to growth and development, whereas probing questions force the other person to be more considerate and help them grow and improve future behaviors.

Asking Questions While Coaching

In his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier helps us see what makes a good coach. The key lesson that he shares with us is that a good coach does more listening than talking, something that seems to cut against our ideas of coaching in the United States. Good coaches don’t hog all of the speaking time and our vision of a good coach who has an anecdote for every situation with instructions and life lessons is not the kind of coach that we actually want or that will help us grow and improve. If we want to be good coaches, we need to learn that listening rather than advice and direction giving can be the most powerful tool in a coaches box.

 

Bungay Stanier writes, “when you’re asking questions you might feel less certain about whether you’re being useful, the conversation can feel slower and you might feel like you’ve somewhat lost control of the conversation (and indeed you have. that’s called “empowering”). Put like that it doesn’t sound like a good offer.” I know for myself, whether I think about a sports coach, a business coach, or even a life coach, I picture some wise person who can tell me what to think and tell me what to look out for, but when I think about Bungay Stanier’s ideas of what a coach is (particularly a life or professional coach) I see the ways that my ideal vision falls short. A strong coach helps you discover solutions and approaches to challenges that work for you. They help you grow and develop by helping you learn,  become more self aware, and solidify your often tangled and jumbled thoughts.

 

Good coaches ask questions because it forces the person they are working with to think deeply and try to find their own answers. Giving advice is good and providing direction is helpful, but Bungay Stanier would argue that nudging an individual and asking them questions helps them grow in ways that simply telling them something does not. When we respond to questions we think more deeply about our past, our goals, and what has or has not worked for us. We think about ways we could approach things differently or try new solutions. Telling someone something directly just gives them one point of view, and not necessarily the point of view that will help them the most based on their own history and experience. What listening and asking questions does is empower the other person to solve their own problems and learn more about themselves and the options at hand.

Rage

I find it frustrating to listen to people complain that protesters are angry. Somehow we have in our mind a vision that protestors should be peaceful, calm, and wise, and when we see protestors that are angry and easily stirred into violence, we become critical and fail to consider the ideology, the demands, or the injustices that are at the heart of the protest. When we look back, I think we view the marches of the Civil Rights Movement as being peaceful protests, but only because we have chosen to remember the peaceful movements when sharing the history in our schools and we have collectively forgotten most of the violence that did occur during that time.

In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes about the anger that is built up within the activists today who fight for better justice for our minority communities. It is hard to accept mass incarceration and unequal treatment from police officers, prosecutors, and judges without becoming cynical and resentful toward the system and political leaders who have allowed for such inequities. Alexander writes, “Those of us who hope to be their allies should not be surprised, if and when this day comes, that when those who have been locked up and locked out finally have the chance to speak and truly be heard, what we hear is rage.”

Anger and even rage are real human emotions. We should not expect people to ignore their feelings and emotions, especially not when their liberties and futures have been taken away from them with such injustice. We must learn to look beyond the anger, rage, or even violence and rioting of protesters if we want to improve the status quo and create greater social cohesion. By criticizing the poor behavior of protestors, we only increase the anger and rage. We must understand that people are driven to such extremes when they feel isolated and powerless and feel that they have no other avenue to speak out against injustices. This may mean that we listen to people we don’t agree with, and it may mean that we open a floor to people we dislike, but it is a necessary step within democracy, for further disenfranchisement can only build anger and rage while honest discussion and a willingness to hear an argument or a protester’s demands will diffuse the tension and violence.

Listening and Empathizing

In his writing from the second century, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius talks about the importance of self-awareness, being present in every moment, and learning to view others through new perspectives which build empathy with other people.  Combining these ideas in a simple thought, Aurelius wrote, “Accustom thyself to attend carefully to what is said by another, and as much as it is possible, be in the speaker’s mind.”  In this short sentence, he is encouraging us to practice all three of his main tenants, and to apply them specifically in conversation.  He does not continue on to explain the benefits of actively listening to what others say, nor does he expand on his thoughts in this passage to explain the downfall of failing to build empathy with others, but throughout his book he reminds us the importance of all of these areas, and he challenges the reader to see the importance of what he discusses.

 

Being present in a conversation means that one is more focused on what the other person is saying than their own thoughts or what is happening around them.  Listening intently involves not just focus, but communication through both verbal and non-verbal expressions as we demonstrate our engagement and ask more probing questions to better understand the speaker.  It is a practice which involves intention and self-awareness as much as mental focus. If we do not recognize our behavior and if we lack the determination to attend to every work that is said to us, then we will not build the focus needed to truly connect and listen well.

 

What I really appreciate about this quick quote from Aurelius is the idea of empathy that is implicitly expressed by the emperor.  Focusing on what is said in a conversation is an excellent skill, but without empathy we become more like a lawyer than a close friend to the person who is speaking. If we do not put ourselves in the mindset of the individual speaking, and if we do not try to understand their perspective, then we may just be preparing our thoughts while they are speaking, building a defense to our own point of view and perspective.  Taking the time during a conversation to truly understand the other by being in the speaker’s mind will help us connect with people in a more profound way, and it will help us have a richer understanding of how other people interpret the world around them.