How To Listen To Someone, Really 3

I once read that people with my Myers–Briggs personality type (INTJ, though sometimes I register as an E) always think that they’re right. They forgot to mention that there is one of us who actually is: me.

(Just kidding)

But this fact about my personality type has always sort of haunted me, mainly because I do try as hard as I can to think as carefully and with as much clarity as possible. I really try to beat my mind at its own game by trying to get outside of it and figure out where I’m thinking wrongly or have biases and fix it.

Some would say that this is impossible and that you can’t “get outside your own mind,” but I think to some degree you actually can. I think the amazing thing about humans is that we actually can be self-correcting as long as we are willing to suffer the pain of the correction—which can be quite painful indeed. Obviously there’s a limit to this, and none of us will ever reach perfect, unbiased thinking, but I do think that you can continually improve your clarity of thought as long as you are willing to suffer the sometimes painful process of changing your thinking or discarding beliefs as you go along and learn and experience new things.

No matter how good you are at self-correcting your own thinking however, you’ll still have a distinct map of reality that’s different than everyone else’s if nothing else than because you have a limited amount and different set of experiences and data.

So what happens when you apply this sort of technique, this willingness to self-correct your own thinking, when talking to someone else? Inside a relationship with someone else?

Empathic Listening

I recently read 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (which totally lived up to the hype—probably my new favorite self-help book), and Stephen Covey talks numerous times about communication and listening and how important it is to not simply hear someone’s point of view just in order to turn around and give your own. Instead, he says, you need to learn to really open your mind and let it be changed and reformed by them, to have your own view (“map”) of reality actually altered and corrected by them as you empathically listen to their way of looking at the world. Basically, one should earnestly try to get into the other person’s skin, put on the lenses they see the world through, and understand what they’re saying through that viewpoint, with a complete willingness for this to change how you think about things yourself.

I think part of the key here is to not simply listen to their view of the world just to intellectually analyze it, but instead to listen while having a truly open mind, recognizing that this view of the world might actually be right. The reason why this is so scary is that you can’t stop your own mind from being changed if what they say does have the ring of truth to it — you’re making yourself quite vulnerable. As Leo DiCaprio’s character in Inception states, “Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate.”

Sadly, I think that almost no one actually is willing to do this when listening to another person. Don’t get me wrong—I think most of us are willing to be factually corrected by someone. To give an example, I wouldn’t be too annoyed if in a conversation I discovered that some statistic I believed turned out to be actually wrong. The reason this isn’t a big deal is because it’s not condemning my actual way of thinking; it’s only revealing that I had some wrong data. The implication is that if I had had the right data, then I would’ve come to the correct conclusion, which means there’s nothing really wrong with the way I was thinking, I just had some bad data to work with.

No, what is immeasurably harder is to admit that my actual way of thinking was wrong, to admit that the way my mind was working was wrong. And now I need to change it now that I’ve seen the way you look at things.

As I was mulling over this idea and how hard it actually is, it occurred to me just how beautiful a thing it is to actually do it, to enter into a conversation willing to allow another person to change the way you think. And if you think about it, since the sum of all the ways you look at the world is a significant component of who you are as a person, you’re really allowing them to change you.

Not only is this crucial for getting closer and closer to an accurate view of a reality (by getting assistance and adjustments from another person’s view of reality), but it also is such a gift to give another person. Just think—how often have you had a deep conversation with someone in which you could sense that the other person was sitting there ready to be changed by you, to have their thinking actually permanently altered by what you have to share with them.

I don’t think many things in life are more beautiful than that.