The German philosopher Hegel had a wonderfully simple explanation for the evolution of thought. He said that a person will posit a thesis (this is my truth…), and that someone will disagree with that thesis (idea), and posit an antithesis (that can’t be true because…). In the ensuing dialogue, the dynamic between the thesis and antithesis will inevitably produce a synthesis, incorporating the best of both positions.
Hegel claimed that the synthesis (synthetics are always stronger than their component ingredients), will become the new thesis, to which an antithesis will develop, creating a new synthesis, etc. ad infinitum. This seems like a really clear explanation of the development of human progress. Through this ongoing dialogue, we eventually arrive at THE TRUTH.
The immediate question that comes to mind, though, is: If we are so good at dialogue, why haven’t we made more progress on the “creating synthesis” part?
What Hegel failed to point out is that for his concept to work there is one very important factor that must be present: LISTENING! For each of us to benefit from dialogue, we must first truly hear the position of the other contributor.
A decade ago, I attended a series of workshops facilitated by Mickey Connolly and Richard Rianoshek around their 2002 book The Communication Catalyst. A large part of each workshop was devoted to exercises around the Ladder of Listening. My huge takeaway from all of the work we did was to characterize three types of listening:
1) Listening to Convince – Listening to a conversation partner just long enough to know why they are wrong. This is what the old joke that says “the opposite of listening is waiting” is all about.
I learned this at the feet of a master. My father was a courtroom litigator. I don’t believe that, in his entire 95 years, he ever listened to anyone longer that it took him to find the flaw in their argument. He would then pounce, with an insightful element of undeniable logic, and destroy his opponent. And believe me, everyone on the other side of a discussion with my father was an opponent.
I learned well from my father. I had many discussions, and I won many arguments. I didn’t, however, win many friends. It finally occurred to me that I might be missing something in my approach, so I took a class in Active Listening.
2) Listening to Understand – In this class, I learned to mimic the body language of my conversation partner. I learned to repeat back or paraphrase what they had said. “If I understood you correctly, what you said was…”
This was certainly a step up from listening to convince. I now fully understood what my partner was saying. I validated my understanding. I sought agreement from my partner that I had grasped his or her point. Now, I was much better prepared to tell them why they were wrong!
This approach, too, left out something that was crucial to a fruitful dialogue. The Communication Catalyst offered a solution.
3) Listening to Learn – Entering every conversation with the conscious intent of being more knowledgeable after the conversation than before.
As simple as it is to define listening to learn, it turns out to be much more difficult than one would think. It requires, for one thing, that one suspend judgment. It requires that I realize that I have MY TRUTH, which is not necessarily (or even frequently) THE TRUTH. The Communication Catalyst suggests that we hold our truths lightly. They will often change as more information comes to light.
What would it be like if we all listened to learn? What would we gain? How much more easily would our dialogue with others progress if we all suspended the need to be right? How much more wisdom would be created if we opened our ears more often that we opened our mouths?