Monday, 2 April 2012

Humble enough to listen

One of the things that I've always done is to be very tolerant of other views.  Actually, when I was in year 10 in Wodonga, I went even further, taking extreme adversarial positions that bordered on the absurd, just so that there would be an interesting discussion.  (My social science report from Mr Chalk ... yes, his real name ... actually mentions this as a criticism, because it was a tad disruptive.)

I've evolved a bit since then, to the point that I'm simply inclined to allow that other people have their own views, and that even if they conflict with mine, that's no reason to think less of them.  The most obvious example of this is the fact that Mrs G is a church-going Christian and I'm a committed atheist.  I don't see any sort of personal conflict in the fact that I helped her study for her reconfirmation of her baptism by contributing my knowledge of biblical history.

However, I can also be an intellectually arrogant person, an ugly trait that I've had for a long time.  Even though I know loads of people smarter than me it still gets a run around the block every so often.  One of the hardest lessons in overcoming that trait has been to appreciate the value of effective listening.

I don't know if you've noticed, but people think differently.  Faced with the same problem different people will attempt to solve it via different routes.

Take, for example, the task of costing a building project.  On the weekend Mrs G tabulated the results of a visit to a hardware store to cost the components for a project we're planning for the Easter weekend.  I then had the job of walking around a rival hardware store to do the comparison costing.   I noticed that her method of setting out this information didn't make sense to me.  I had difficulty comprehending the fact that the cost of the timber required to construct a frame of a certain dimension was expressed as a total cost for one frame, and that frames of different sizes, using the same gauge timber, were listed separately.  The table didn't actually stipulate any gauge of timber!  I had to deduce which frames required which gauge from my memory of planning the project with Mrs G.  All I really needed was a price per metre, but it bugged me that I couldn't immediately compare prices without first calculating the price per metre from the information gathered from the other store.  It's not that Mrs G's approach was wrong, just ... different.

At least this was a problem on paper.  When I face this same kind of cognitive disconnect verbally, I find it hard to keep listening and I either surrender or insist that it gets written down.  This makes me uncomfortable, because of the aforementioned intellectual arrogance.  Why can't I always and immediately understand another person's approach to a problem?

Well, I understand that nobody's perception of the universe is identical to anyone else's, so it is unreasonable to expect that the way we think about costing building materials (for example) should be identical to another person's.  The exception would be, of course, if we were both trained to do it the same way.

In the knowledge that this expectation is unreasonable, it is also unreasonable of me to stop listening when I don't understand what a person is trying to explain to me.  It requires humility to ask someone to stop and to try to explain something a different way, a way which might make sense.  I don't know about you, but I don't have a constant supply of humility, so sometimes these things get a bit fraught.

When you see people butt heads (or order their armies across borders) chances are they are so convinced that their world-view is correct that they lack the capacity to hear and consider an alternative.  I guess I'm not making any kind of unique observation when I say that a little more humility in the world would avoid a great deal of trouble.

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