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.
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.