Improve our understanding of others

understandingtitle

Wouldn’t it be useful to improve our understanding of how other people think and feel? Consider the following scenario:

Emma and Cornelius work at the same company, which is a 45 minute train ride away. As a late riser, Cornelius likes to sleep in as much as possible, and then rush to get dressed and catch the train. Emma tries to wait for him and catch the train together, but she becomes increasingly anxious as it appears more and more likely that they will miss the train and be late to work.

Emma feels really bad about being late to work, and so sometimes she leaves the house first and catches the train by herself. Whenever this happens, Cornelius becomes very upset.

 Why is Cornelius so upset?

  1. Cornelius feels that Emma is judging him to be immature, irresponsible, or tardy.
  2. Cornelius feels that Emma values arriving to work on time more than his feelings.
  3. Cornelius thinks that Emma is too hung up on punctuality.
  4. Although Cornelius thinks it’s bad to be late, he is upset because Emma caused him to lose face.

The answer is that there isn’t enough information presented here to know! It could even be caused by other reasons not listed here. Some people are better than others at figuring out what’s going on, though. This ability goes by various names, such as perspective-taking or Theory of Mind, but at its core it is about understanding other people, who may have very different ways of thinking, different assumptions about the world, and different preferences from us. Improving our skill at understanding different people is very hard, but fortunately for us, there are many approaches that can work. I’ll now describe one way I learned to increase this ability.

Prerequisites

In order to benefit from the approach described here, we will need to be able to:

Additionally, perspective-taking will be significantly harder for younger people, especially below the age of 25. This is because the neocortex, responsible for higher executive functioning, is not fully developed yet. Don’t worry young people, it improves with time!

What stops us from understanding

Most people have a fairly good ability to understand others. We are often hampered in our pursuit of understanding others by self-imposed limitations. We need to apprehend and overcome these limitations to improve in this important skill.

One common limitation is focusing too much on correctness. Examples of this in action:

“He’s wrong to support Brexit on the basis that Brexit will improve the economy. That doesn’t make sense, Brexit will wreck the economy!”

“She’s wrong to be angry at me for not going bowling yesterday. I never promised to go bowling and I was tired after work, she should have asked me beforehand.”

“If he didn’t want me to leave the house without him, he shouldn’t have been late!”

What is happening here is that we are analyzing what they say, and preparing our responses. If they support Brexit because they say that it will improve the economy, then we think about this statement, analyze whether it’s true, and then think of counter-arguments.

This approach is logically correct, but it’s not useful! When we spend time thinking about how to rebut their factual claims, we are not spending that time understanding their mindset. We’re focused on expressing the right idea and bending the other person to our perspective instead of understanding the other person’s point of view.

We are ignoring opportunity cost. The price we are paying for more correctness is the information we could otherwise be getting. We gain correctness by analyzing their claims and formulating our responses, and this comes at the cost of listening and observing. The result is that our analysis and responses will be based on low quality and incomplete information. Consider how the train ride conversation might go:

Cornelius: Emma, I can’t believe you didn’t wait for me and instead you just dashed out the door and hopped onto the train by yourself! I know I’m a bit tardy in the mornings but you shouldn’t just abandon me like that. I had to take the train alone and I arrived at work late today.

Emma: Hold on there, Cornelius. That doesn’t make sense. You didn’t arrive late at work because of me. You arrived late because you took too long in the morning. Consider the counterfactual: what if I waited for you and we left at the same time? Then instead of you being late, we would both be late!

Cornelius: Emma, you don’t understand me at all!

We can’t really say that there was much useful communication going on here. What went wrong?

A better approach

This well-intentioned but ineffective approach is based on the natural inclination to engage with the specific information presented to us. Usually, this is a mistake, because it is working at the wrong level.1 Instead of engaging with the logic and facts, we need to engage with their emotions and perspective.

Knowing the accuracy of every single word they say won’t help at all with understanding their emotions and thought processes. We need to accept that correctness is not the point in these situations. Of the many more important things we could focus on, some are especially suited to increasing our understanding and building a connection: their values, their moral foundations, their first principles, and their assumptions.2 We need to first understand these areas, because they make it easier to establish rapport and prevent conversations from becoming adversarial. In the example above, the conversation will probably become confrontational because Emma’s factual challenge misses the point and disregards Cornelius’ point of view.

Be curious, not judgmental. Have a conversation, not a debate. Fully focus on them, absorbing not only their stated message, but also the nuanced subtext of the conversation and their perspective. There’s no need to analyze and criticize at this stage; plenty of time to do that later. For now, the priority is to increase our understanding by giving our full attention to them. Other helpful actions we can take are to show them that we’re listening by smiling and nodding occasionally, and to paraphrase what they say so that they know we understood them correctly.3

Why it works

If we approach discussion with a curious mindset and as a conversation instead of a debate, we will have much more information to work with. Then, we will be better placed to ask further questions to learn more about their perspective and to build an accurate model of their motivations and values.

Our conversation partners can feel whether they are being judged and will shut down, becoming increasingly stubborn in their opinions and unlikely to change their behavior. On the other hand, if we approach them with an attitude of sincere curiosity, they will be delighted. In our digital age, with its widespread alienation and ennui, it’s so rare to find someone who is sincerely interested in us.

Maybe this is how the conversation could have gone:

Cornelius: Emma, I can’t believe you didn’t wait for me and instead you just dashed out the door and hopped onto the train by yourself! I know I’m a bit tardy in the mornings but you shouldn’t just abandon me like that. I had to take the train alone and I arrived at work late today.

Emma: Oh no, that must feel terrible! Did you feel abandoned by me when I left early?

Cornelius: Yes, because I value being together, and this includes the morning train ride. I know you are concerned with arriving on time, because you feel that punctuality is a sign of responsibility and maturity. I feel that way too, of course, but not as strongly as you do.

Emma: Thanks for sharing your feelings with me. I feel really anxious about being late and that’s why I leave without you sometimes. Let’s work out a way for us to take the train together and also arrive on time!

Emma listens and responds with compassion, confirming Cornelius’ perspective, instead of criticizing or getting bogged down in factual minutiae. Cornelius then offers additional information, which allows Emma to create a more accurate model of his thought process. By asking Cornelius to elaborate on his perspective, Emma makes him feel safe in the conversation. Cornelius becomes receptive to criticism that would otherwise have caused him to shut down, so Emma can now make comments and suggestions.

Summary

A common way to handicap ourselves in conversations is to focus too much on the correctness of what other people are saying. There is a significant opportunity cost to doing this: it prevents us from getting information that is necessary to understand their perspective. Without this understanding, discussion become adversarial and unproductive. Instead, we should adopt a curious mindset and have conversations instead of debates.


1. Once a sufficiently accurate mutual Theory of Mind has been created, it’s okay (and arguably more efficient) to engage at this level. But as an attempt at building a Theory of Mind, this approach fails miserably.
2. Astute readers will notice that emotions are not in this list. This is deliberate; “understanding people’s emotions” is common advice, but emotions are an output, not an input. Understanding the inputs that create the emotions is more important.
3. See active listening for more details on the implementation of curiosity mindset and collaborative discussion.

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