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ASSUME THAT THE PERSON YOU ARE LISTENING TO MIGHT KNOW SOMETHING YOU DON’T
Psychotherapy is not advice. Advice is what you get when the person you’re talking with about something horrible and complicated wishes you would just shut up and go away. Advice is what you get when the person you are talking to wants to revel in the superiority of his or her own intelligence. If you weren’t so stupid, after all, you wouldn’t have your stupid problems.
Psychotherapy is genuine conversation. Genuine conversation is exploration, articulation and strategizing. When you’re involved in a genuine conversation, you’re listening, and talking—but mostly listening. Listening is paying attention. It’s amazing what people will tell you if you listen. Sometimes if you listen to people they will even tell you what’s wrong with them. Sometimes they will even tell you how they plan to fix it. Sometimes that helps you fix something wrong with yourself. One surprising time (and this is only one occasion of many when such things happened), I was listening to someone very carefully, and she told me within minutes (a) that she was a witch and (b) that her witch coven spent a lot of its time visualizing world peace together. She was a long-time lower-level functionary in some bureaucratic job. I would never have guessed that she was a witch. I also didn’t know that witch covens spent any of their time visualizing world peace. I didn’t know what to make of any of it, either, but it wasn’t boring, and that’s something.
In my clinical practice, I talk and I listen. I talk more to some people, and listen more to others. Many of the people I listen to have no one else to talk to. Some of them are truly alone in the world. There are far more people like that than you think. You don’t meet them, because they are alone. Others are surrounded by tyrants or narcissists or drunks or traumatized people or professional victims. Some are not good at articulating themselves. They go off on tangents. They repeat themselves. They say vague and contradictory things. They’re hard to listen to. Others have terrible things happening around them. They have parents with Alzheimer’s or sick children. There’s not much time left over for their personal concerns.
One time a client who I had been seeing for a few months came into my officefn1 for her scheduled appointment and, after some brief preliminaries, she announced “I think I was raped.” It is not easy to know how to respond to a statement like that, although there is frequently some mystery around such events. Often alcohol is involved, as it is in most sexual assault cases. Alcohol can cause ambiguity. That’s partly why people drink. Alcohol temporarily lifts the terrible burden of self-consciousness from people. Drunk people know about the future, but they don’t care about it. That’s exciting. That’s exhilarating. Drunk people can party like there’s no tomorrow. But, because there is a tomorrow—most of the time—drunk people also get in trouble. They black out. They go to dangerous places with careless people. They have fun. But they also get raped. So, I immediately thought something like that might be involved. How else to understand “I think”? But that wasn’t the end of the story. She added an extra detail: “Five times.” The first sentence was awful enough, but the second produced something unfathomable. Five times? What could that possibly mean?
My client told me that she would go to a bar and have a few drinks. Someone would start to talk with her. She would end up at his place or her place with him. The evening would proceed, inevitably, to its sexual climax. The next day she would wake up, uncertain about what happened—uncertain about her motives, uncertain about his motives, and uncertain about the world. Miss S, we’ll call her, was vague to the point of non-existence. She was a ghost of a person. She dressed, however, like a professional. She knew how to present herself, for first appearances. In consequence, she had finagled her way onto a government advisory board considering the construction of a major piece of transportation infrastructure (even though she knew nothing about government, advising or construction). She also hosted a local public-access radio show dedicated to small business, even though she had never held a real job, and knew nothing about being an entrepreneur. She had been receiving welfare payments for the entirety of her adulthood.
Her parents had never provided her with a minute of attention. She had four brothers and they were not at all good to her. She had no friends now, and none in the past. She had no partner. She had no one to talk to, and she didn’t know how to think on her own (that’s not rare). She had no self. She was, instead, a walking cacophony of unintegrated experiences. I had tried previously to help her find a job. I asked her if she had a CV. She said yes. I asked her to bring it to me. She brought it to our next session. It was fifty pages long. It was in a file folder box, divided into sections, with manila tag separators—the ones with the little colorful index-markers on the sides. The sections included such topics as “My Dreams” and “Books I Have Read.” She had written down dozens of her night-time dreams in the “My Dreams” section, and provided brief summaries and reviews of her reading material. This was what she proposed to send to prospective employers (or perhaps already had: who really knew?). It is impossible to understand how much someone has to be no one at all to exist in a world where a file folder box containing fifty indexed pages listing dreams and novels constitutes a CV. Miss S knew nothing about herself. She knew nothing about other individuals. She knew nothing about the world. She was a movie played out of focus. And she was desperately waiting for a story about herself to make it all make sense.
If you add some sugar to cold water, and stir it, the sugar will dissolve. If you heat up that water, you can dissolve more. If you heat the water to boiling, you can add a lot more sugar and get that to dissolve too. Then, if you take that boiling sugar water, and slowly cool it, and don’t bump it or jar it, you can trick it (I don’t know how else to phrase this) into holding a lot more dissolved sugar than it would have it if it had remained cold all along. That’s called a super-saturated solution. If you drop a single crystal of sugar into that super-saturated solution, all the excess sugar will suddenly and dramatically crystallize. It’s as if it were crying out for order. That was my client. People like her are the reason that the many forms of psychotherapy currently practised all work. People can be so confused that their psyches will be ordered and their lives improved by the adoption of any reasonably orderly system of interpretation. This is the bringing together of the disparate elements of their lives in a disciplined manner—any disciplined manner. So, if you have come apart at the seams (or if you never have been together at all) you can restructure your life on Freudian, Jungian, Adlerian, Rogerian or behavioural principles. At least then you make sense. At least then you’re coherent. At least then you might be good for something, if not good yet for everything. You can’t fix a car with an axe, but you can cut down a tree. That’s still something.
At about the same time I was seeing this client, the media was all afire with stories of recovered memories—particularly of sexual assault. The dispute raged apace: were these genuine accounts of past trauma? Or were they post-hoc constructs, dreamed up as a consequence of pressure wittingly or unwittingly applied by incautious therapists, grasped onto desperately by clinical clients all-too-eager to find a simple cause for all their trouble? Sometimes, it was the former, perhaps; and sometimes the latter. I understood much more clearly and precisely, however, how easy it might be to instill a false memory into the mental landscape as soon as my client revealed her uncertainty about her sexual experiences. The past appears fixed, but it’s not—not in an important psychological sense. There is an awful lot to the past, after all, and the way we organize it can be subject to drastic revision.
Imagine, for example, a movie where nothing but terrible things happen. But, in the end, everything works out. Everything is resolved. A sufficiently happy ending can change the meaning of all the previous events. They can all be viewed as worthwhile, given that ending. Now imagine another movie. A lot of things are happening. They’re all exciting and interesting. But there are a lot of them. Ninety minutes in, you start to worry. “This is a great movie,” you think, “but there are a lot of things going on. I sure hope the filmmaker can pull it all together.” But that doesn’t happen. Instead, the story ends, abruptly, unresolved, or something facile and clichéd occurs. You leave deeply annoyed and unsatisfied—failing to notice that you were fully engaged and enjoying the movie almost the whole time you were in the theatre. The present can change the past, and the future can change the present.
When you are remembering the past, as well, you remember some parts of it and forget others. You have clear memories of some things that happened, but not others, of potentially equal import—just as in the present you are aware of some aspects of your surroundings and unconscious of others. You categorize your experience, grouping some elements together, and separating them from the rest. There is a mysterious arbitrariness about all of this. You don’t form a comprehensive, objective record. You can’t. You just don’t know enough. You just can’t perceive enough. You’re not objective, either. You’re alive. You’re subjective. You have vested interests—at least in yourself, at least usually. What exactly should be included in the story? Where exactly is the border between events?
The sexual abuse of children is distressingly common.156 However, it’s not as common as poorly trained psychotherapists think, and it also does not always produce terribly damaged adults.157 People vary in their resilience. An event that will wipe one person out can be shrugged off by another. But therapists with a little second-hand knowledge of Freud often axiomatically assume that a distressed adult in their practice must have been subject to childhood sexual abuse. Why else would they be distressed? So, they dig, and infer, and intimate, and suggest, and overreact, and bias and tilt. They exaggerate the importance of some events, and downplay the importance of others. They trim the facts to fit their theory.158 And they convince their clients that they were sexually abused—if they could only remember. And then the clients start to remember. And then they start to accuse. And sometimes what they remember never happened, and the people accused are innocent. The good news? At least the therapist’s theory remains intact. That’s good—for the therapist. But there’s no shortage of collateral damage. However, people are often willing to produce a lot of collateral damage if they can retain their theory.
I knew about all this when Miss S came to talk to me about her sexual experiences. When she recounted her trips to the singles bars, and their recurring aftermath, I thought a bunch of things at once. I thought, “You’re so vague and so non-existent. You’re a denizen of chaos and the underworld. You are going ten different places at the same time. Anyone can take you by the hand and guide you down the road of their choosing.” After all, if you’re not the leading man in your own drama, you’re a bit player in someone else’s—and you might well be assigned to play a dismal, lonely and tragic part. After Miss S recounted her story, we sat there. I thought, “You have normal sexual desires. You’re extremely lonely. You’re unfulfilled sexually. You’re afraid of men and ignorant of the world and know nothing of yourself. You wander around like an accident waiting to happen and the accident happens and that’s your life.” I thought, “Part of you wants to be taken. Part of you wants to be a child. You were abused by your brothers and ignored by your father and so part of you wants revenge upon men. Part of you is guilty. Another part is ashamed. Another part is thrilled and excited. Who are you? What did you do? What happened?” What was the objective truth? There was no way of knowing the objective truth. And there never would be. There was no objective observer, and there never would be. There was no complete and accurate story. Such a thing did not and could not exist. There were, and are, only partial accounts and fragmentary viewpoints. But some are still better than others. Memory is not a description of the objective past. Memory is a tool. Memory is the past’s guide to the future. If you remember that something bad happened, and you can figure out why, then you can try to avoid that bad thing happening again. That’s the purpose of memory. It’s not “to remember the past.” It’s to stop the same damn thing from happening over and over.
I thought, “I could simplify Miss S’s life. I could say that her suspicions of rape were fully justified, and that her doubt about the events was nothing but additional evidence of her thorough and long-term victimization. I could insist that her sexual partners had a legal obligation to ensure that she was not too impaired by alcohol to give consent. I could tell her that she had indisputably been subject to violent and illicit acts, unless she had consented to each sexual move explicitly and verbally. I could tell her that she was an innocent victim.” I could have told her all that. And it would have been true. And she would have accepted it as true, and remembered it for the rest of her life. She would have been a new person, with a new history, and a new destiny.
But I also thought, “I could tell Miss S that she is a walking disaster. I could tell her that she wanders into a bar like a courtesan in a coma, that she is a danger to herself and others, that she needs to wake up, and that if she goes to singles bars and drinks too much and is taken home and has rough violent sex (or even tender caring sex), then what the hell does she expect?” In other words, I could have told her, in more philosophical terms, that she was Nietzsche’s “pale criminal”—the person who at one moment dares to break the sacred law and at the next shrinks from paying the price. And that would have been true, too, and she would have accepted it as such, and remembered it.
If I had been the adherent of a left-wing, social-justice ideology, I would have told her the first story. If I had been the adherent of a conservative ideology, I would have told her the second. And her responses after having been told either the first or the second story would have proved to my satisfaction and hers that the story I had told her was true—completely, irrefutably true. And that would have been advice.
Figure It Out for Yourself
I decided instead to listen. I have learned not to steal my clients’ problems from them. I don’t want to be the redeeming hero or the deus ex machina—not in someone else’s story. I don’t want their lives. So, I asked her to tell me what she thought, and I listened. She talked a lot. When we were finished, she still didn’t know if she had been raped, and neither did I. Life is very complicated.
Sometimes you have to change the way you understand everything to properly understand a single something. “Was I raped?” can be a very complicated question. The mere fact that the question would present itself in that form indicates the existence of infinite layers of complexity—to say nothing of “five times.” There are a myriad of questions hidden inside “Was I raped?”: What is rape? What is consent? What constitutes appropriate sexual caution? How should a person defend herself? Where does the fault lie? “Was I raped?” is a hydra. If you cut off the head of a hydra, seven more grow. That’s life. Miss S would have had to talk for twenty years to figure out whether she had been raped. And someone would have had to be there to listen. I started the process, but circumstances made it impossible for me to finish. She left therapy with me only somewhat less ill-formed and vague than when she first met me. But at least she didn’t leave as the living embodiment of my damned ideology.
The people I listen to need to talk, because that’s how people think. People need to think. Otherwise they wander blindly into pits. When people think, they simulate the world, and plan how to act in it. If they do a good job of simulating, they can figure out what stupid things they shouldn’t do. Then they can not do them. Then they don’t have to suffer the consequences. That’s the purpose of thinking. But we can’t do it alone. We simulate the world, and plan our actions in it. Only human beings do this. That’s how brilliant we are. We make little avatars of ourselves. We place those avatars in fictional worlds. Then we watch what happens. If our avatar thrives, then we act like he does, in the real world. Then we thrive (we hope). If our avatar fails, we don’t go there, if we have any sense. We let him die in the fictional world, so that we don’t have to really die in the present.
Imagine two children talking. The younger one says, “Wouldn’t it be fun to climb up on the roof?” He has just placed a little avatar of himself in a fictional world. But his older sister objects. She chimes in. “That’s stupid,” she says. “What if you fall off the roof? What if Dad catches you?” The younger child can then modify the original simulation, draw the appropriate conclusion, and let the whole fictional world wither on the vine. Or not. Maybe the risk is worth it. But at least now it can be factored in. The fictional world is a bit more complete, and the avatar a bit wiser.
People think they think, but it’s not true. It’s mostly self-criticism that passes for thinking. True thinking is rare—just like true listening. Thinking is listening to yourself. It’s difficult. To think, you have to be at least two people at the same time. Then you have to let those people disagree. Thinking is an internal dialogue between two or more different views of the world. Viewpoint One is an avatar in a simulated world. It has its own representations of past, present and future, and its own ideas about how to act. So do Viewpoints Two, and Three, and Four. Thinking is the process by which these internal avatars imagine and articulate their worlds to one another. You can’t set straw men against one another when you’re thinking, either, because then you’re not thinking. You’re rationalizing, post-hoc. You’re matching what you want against a weak opponent so that you don’t have to change your mind. You’re propagandizing. You’re using double-speak. You’re using your conclusions to justify your proofs. You’re hiding from the truth.
True thinking is complex and demanding. It requires you to be articulate speaker and careful, judicious listener, at the same time. It involves conflict. So, you have to tolerate conflict. Conflict involves negotiation and compromise. So, you have to learn to give and take and to modify your premises and adjust your thoughts—even your perceptions of the world. Sometimes it results in the defeat and elimination of one or more internal avatar. They don’t like to be defeated or eliminated, either. They’re hard to build. They’re valuable. They’re alive. They like to stay alive. They’ll fight to stay alive. You better listen to them. If you don’t they’ll go underground and turn into devils and torture you. In consequence, thinking is emotionally painful, as well as physiologically demanding; more so than anything else—except not thinking. But you have to be very articulate and sophisticated to have all of this occur inside your own head. What are you to do, then, if you aren’t very good at thinking, at being two people at one time? That’s easy. You talk. But you need someone to listen. A listening person is your collaborator and your opponent.
A listening person tests your talking (and your thinking) without having to say anything. A listening person is a representative of common humanity. He stands for the crowd. Now the crowd is by no means always right, but it’s commonly right. It’s typically right. If you say something that takes everyone aback, therefore, you should reconsider what you said. I say that, knowing full well that controversial opinions are sometimes correct—sometimes so much so that the crowd will perish if it refuses to listen. It is for this reason, among others, that the individual is morally obliged to stand up and tell the truth of his or her own experience. But something new and radical is still almost always wrong. You need good, even great, reasons to ignore or defy general, public opinion. That’s your culture. It’s a mighty oak. You perch on one of its branches. If the branch breaks, it’s a long way down—farther, perhaps, than you think. If you’re reading this book, there’s a strong probability that you’re a privileged person. You can read. You have time to read. You’re perched high in the clouds. It took untold generations to get you where you are. A little gratitude might be in order. If you’re going to insist on bending the world to your way, you better have your reasons. If you’re going to stand your ground, you better have your reasons. You better have thought them through. You might otherwise be in for a very hard landing. You should do what other people do, unless you have a very good reason not to. If you’re in a rut, at least you know that other people have travelled that path. Out of the rut is too often off the road. And in the desert that awaits off the road there are highwaymen and monsters.
So speaks wisdom.
A Listening Person
A listening person can reflect the crowd. He can do that without talking. He can do that merely by letting the talking person listen to himself. That is what Freud recommended. He had his patients lay on a couch, look at the ceiling, let their minds wander, and say whatever wandered in. That’s his method of free association. That’s the way the Freudian psychoanalyst avoids transferring his or her own personal biases and opinions into the internal landscape of the patient. It was for such reasons that Freud did not face his patients. He did not want their spontaneous meditations to be altered by his emotional expressions, no matter how slight. He was properly concerned that his own opinions—and, worse, his own unresolved problems—would find themselves uncontrollably reflected in his responses and reactions, conscious and unconscious alike. He was afraid that he would in such a manner detrimentally affect the development of his patients. It was for such reasons, as well, that Freud insisted that psychoanalysts be analyzed themselves. He wanted those who practiced his method to uncover and eliminate some of their own worst blind spots and prejudices, so they would not practise corruptly. Freud had a point. He was, after all, a genius. You can tell that because people still hate him. But there are disadvantages to the detached and somewhat distant approach recommended by Freud. Many of those who seek therapy desire and need a closer, more personal relationship (although that also has its dangers). This is in part why I have opted in my practice for the conversation, instead of the Freudian method—as have most clinical psychologists.
It can be worthwhile for my clients to see my reactions. To protect them from the undue influence that might produce, I attempt to set my aim properly, so that my responses emerge from the appropriate motivation. I do what I can to want the best for them (whatever that might be). I do my best to want the best, period, as well (because that is part of wanting the best for my clients). I try to clear my mind, and to leave my own concerns aside. That way I am concentrating on what is best for my clients, while I am simultaneously alert to any cues that I might be misunderstanding what that best is. That’s something that has to be negotiated, not assumed on my part. It’s something that has to be managed very carefully, to mitigate the risks of close, personal interaction. My clients talk. I listen. Sometimes I respond. Often the response is subtle. It’s not even verbal. My clients and I face each other. We make eye contact. We can see each other’s expressions. They can observe the effects of their words on me, and I can observe the effects of mine on them. They can respond to my responses.
A client of mine might say, “I hate my wife.” It’s out there, once said. It’s hanging in the air. It has emerged from the underworld, materialized from chaos, and manifested itself. It is perceptible and concrete and no longer easily ignored. It’s become real. The speaker has even startled himself. He sees the same thing reflected in my eyes. He notes that, and continues on the road to sanity. “Hold it,” he says. “Back up. That’s too harsh. Sometimes I hate my wife. I hate her when she won’t tell me what she wants. My mom did that all the time, too. It drove Dad crazy. It drove all of us crazy, to tell you the truth. It even drove Mom crazy! She was a nice person, but she was very resentful. Well, at least my wife isn’t as bad as my mother. Not at all. Wait! I guess my wife is actually pretty good at telling me what she wants, but I get really bothered when she doesn’t, because Mom tortured us all half to death being a martyr. That really affected me. Maybe I overreact now when it happens even a bit. Hey! I’m acting just like Dad did when Mom upset him! That isn’t me. That doesn’t have anything to do with my wife! I better let her know.” I observe from all this that my client had failed previously to properly distinguish his wife from his mother. And I see that he was possessed, unconsciously, by the spirit of his father. He sees all of that too. Now he is a bit more differentiated, a bit less an uncarved block, a bit less hidden in the fog. He has sewed up a small tear in the fabric of his culture. He says, “That was a good session, Dr. Peterson.” I nod. You can be pretty smart if you can just shut up.
I’m a collaborator and opponent even when I’m not talking. I can’t help it. My expressions broadcast my response, even when they’re subtle. So, I’m communicating, as Freud so rightly stressed, even when silent. But I also talk in my clinical sessions. How do I know when to say something? First, as I said, I put myself in the proper frame of mind. I aim properly. I want things to be better. My mind orients itself, given this goal. It tries to produce responses to the therapeutic dialogue that furthers that aim. I watch what happens, internally. I reveal my responses. That’s the first rule. Sometimes, for example, a client will say something, and a thought will occur to me, or a fantasy flit through my mind. Frequently it’s about something that was said by the same client earlier that day, or during a previous session. Then I tell my client that thought or fantasy. Disinterestedly. I say, “You said this and I noticed that I then became aware of this.” Then we discuss it. We try to determine the relevance of meaning of my reaction. Sometimes, perhaps, it’s about me. That was Freud’s point. But sometimes it is just the reaction of a detached but positively inclined human being to a personally revealing statement by another human being. It’s meaningful—sometimes, even, corrective. Sometimes, however, it’s me that gets corrected.
You have to get along with other people. A therapist is one of those other people. A good therapist will tell you the truth about what he thinks. (That is not the same thing as telling you that what he thinks is the truth.) Then at least you have the honest opinion of at least one person. That’s not so easy to get. That’s not nothing. That’s key to the psychotherapeutic process: two people tell each other the truth—and both listen.
How Should You Listen?
Carl Rogers, one of the twentieth century’s great psychotherapists, knew something about listening. He wrote, “The great majority of us cannot listen; we find ourselves compelled to evaluate, because listening is too dangerous. The first requirement is courage, and we do not always have it.”159 He knew that listening could transform people. On that, Rogers commented, “Some of you may be feeling that you listen well to people, and that you have never seen such results. The chances are very great indeed that your listening has not been of the type I have described.” He suggested that his readers conduct a short experiment when they next found themselves in a dispute: “Stop the discussion for a moment, and institute this rule: ‘Each person can speak up for himself only after he has first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately, and to that speaker’s satisfaction.’ ” I have found this technique very useful, in my private life and in my practice. I routinely summarize what people have said to me, and ask them if I have understood properly. Sometimes they accept my summary. Sometimes I am offered a small correction. Now and then I am wrong completely. All of that is good to know.
There are several primary advantages to this process of summary. The first advantage is that I genuinely come to understand what the person is saying. Of this, Rogers notes, “Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But if you try it you will discover it is one of the most difficult things you have ever tried to do. If you really understand a person in this way, if you are willing to enter his private world and see the way life appears to him, you run the risk of being changed yourself. You might see it his way, you might find yourself influenced in your attitudes or personality. This risk of being changed is one of the most frightening prospects most of us can face.” More salutary words have rarely been written.
The second advantage to the act of summary is that it aids the person in consolidation and utility of memory. Consider the following situation: A client in my practice recounts a long, meandering, emotion-laden account of a difficult period in his or her life. We summarize, back and forth. The account becomes shorter. It is now summed up, in the client’s memory (and in mine) in the form we discussed. It is now a different memory, in many ways—with luck, a better memory. It is now less weighty. It has been distilled; reduced to the gist. We have extracted the moral of the story. It becomes a description of the cause and the result of what happened, formulated such that repetition of the tragedy and pain becomes less likely in the future. “This is what happened. This is why. This is what I have to do to avoid such things from now on”: That’s a successful memory. That’s the purpose of memory. You remember the past not so that it is “accurately recorded,” to say it again, but so that you are prepared for the future.
The third advantage to employing the Rogerian method is the difficulty it poses to the careless construction of straw-man arguments. When someone opposes you, it is very tempting to oversimplify, parody, or distort his or her position. This is a counterproductive game, designed both to harm the dissenter and to unjustly raise your personal status. By contrast, if you are called upon to summarize someone’s position, so that the speaking person agrees with that summary, you may have to state the argument even more clearly and succinctly than the speaker has even yet managed. If you first give the devil his due, looking at his arguments from his perspective, you can (1) find the value in them, and learn something in the process, or (2) hone your positions against them (if you still believe they are wrong) and strengthen your arguments further against challenge. This will make you much stronger. Then you will no longer have to misrepresent your opponent’s position (and may well have bridged at least part of the gap between the two of you). You will also be much better at withstanding your own doubts.
Sometimes it takes a long time to figure out what someone genuinely means when they are talking. This is because often they are articulating their ideas for the first time. They can’t do it without wandering down blind alleys or making contradictory or even nonsensical claims. This is partly because talking (and thinking) is often more about forgetting than about remembering. To discuss an event, particularly something emotional, like a death or serious illness, is to slowly choose what to leave behind. To begin, however, much that is not necessary must be put into words. The emotion-laden speaker must recount the whole experience, in detail. Only then can the central narrative, cause and consequence, come into focus or consolidate itself. Only then can the moral of the story be derived.
Imagine that someone holds a stack of hundred-dollar bills, some of which are counterfeit. All the bills might have to be spread on a table, so that each can be seen, and any differences noted, before the genuine can be distinguished from the false. This is the sort of methodical approach you have to take when really listening to someone trying to solve a problem or communicate something important. If upon learning that some of the bills are counterfeit you too casually dismiss all of them (as you would if you were in a hurry, or otherwise unwilling to put in the effort), the person will never learn to separate wheat from chaff.
If you listen, instead, without premature judgment, people will generally tell you everything they are thinking—and with very little deceit. People will tell you the most amazing, absurd, interesting things. Very few of your conversations will be boring. (You can in fact tell whether or not you are actually listening in this manner. If the conversation is boring, you probably aren’t.)
Primate Dominance–Hierarchy Manoeuvres—and Wit
Not all talking is thinking. Nor does all listening foster transformation. There are other motives for both, some of which produce much less valuable, counterproductive and even dangerous outcomes. There is the conversation, for example, where one participant is speaking merely to establish or confirm his place in the dominance hierarchy. One person begins by telling a story about some interesting occurrence, recent or past, that involved something good, bad or surprising enough to make the listening worthwhile. The other person, now concerned with his or her potentially substandard status as less-interesting individual, immediately thinks of something better, worse, or more surprising to relate. This isn’t one of those situations where two conversational participants are genuinely playing off each other, riffing on the same themes, for the mutual enjoyment of both (and everyone else). This is jockeying for position, pure and simple. You can tell when one of those conversations is occurring. They are accompanied by a feeling of embarrassment among speakers and alike, all who know that something false and exaggerated has just been said.
There is another, closely allied form of conversation, where neither speaker is listening in the least to the other. Instead, each is using the time occupied by the current speaker to conjure up what he or she will say next, which will often be something off-topic, because the person anxiously waiting to speak has not been listening. This can and will bring the whole conversational train to a shuddering halt. At this point, it is usual for those who were on board during the crash to remain silent, and look occasionally and in a somewhat embarrassed manner at each other, until everyone leaves, or someone thinks of something witty and puts Humpty Dumpty together again.
Then there is the conversation where one participant is trying to attain victory for his point of view. This is yet another variant of the dominance-hierarchy conversation. During such a conversation, which often tends toward the ideological, the speaker endeavours to (1) denigrate or ridicule the viewpoint of anyone holding a contrary position, (2) use selective evidence while doing so and, finally, (3) impress the listeners (many of whom are already occupying the same ideological space) with the validity of his assertions. The goal is to gain support for a comprehensive, unitary, oversimplified world-view. Thus, the purpose of the conversation is to make the case that not thinking is the correct tack. The person who is speaking in this manner believes that winning the argument makes him right, and that doing so necessarily validates the assumption-structure of the dominance hierarchy he most identifies with. This is often—and unsurprisingly—the hierarchy within which he has achieved the most success, or the one with which he is most temperamentally aligned. Almost all discussions involving politics or economics unfold in this manner, with each participant attempting to justify fixed, a priori positions instead of trying to learn something or to adopt a different frame (even for the novelty). It is for this reason that conservatives and liberals alike believe their positions to be self-evident, particularly as they become more extreme. Given certain temperamentally-based assumptions, a predictable conclusion emerges—but only when you ignore the fact that the assumptions themselves are mutable.
These conversations are very different from the listening type. When a genuine listening conversation is taking place, one person at a time has the floor, and everyone else is listening. The person speaking is granted the opportunity to seriously discuss some event, usually unhappy or even tragic. Everyone else responds sympathetically. These conversations are important because the speaker is organizing the troublesome event in his or her mind, while recounting the story. The fact is important enough to bear repeating: people organize their brains with conversation. If they don’t have anyone to tell their story to, they lose their minds. Like hoarders, they cannot unclutter themselves. The input of the community is required for the integrity of the individual psyche. To put it another way: It takes a village to organize a mind.
Much of what we consider healthy mental function is the result of our ability to use the reactions of others to keep our complex selves functional. We outsource the problem of our sanity. This is why it is the fundamental responsibility of parents to render their children socially acceptable. If a person’s behaviour is such that other people can tolerate him, then all he has to do is place himself in a social context. Then people will indicate—by being interested in or bored by what he says, or laughing or not laughing at his jokes, or teasing or ridiculing, or even by lifting an eyebrow—whether his actions and statements are what they should be. Everyone is always broadcasting to everyone else their desire to encounter the ideal. We punish and reward each other precisely to the degree that each of us behaves in keeping with that desire—except, of course, when we are looking for trouble.
The sympathetic responses offered during a genuine conversation indicate that the teller is valued, and that the story being told is important, serious, deserving of consideration, and understandable. Men and women often misunderstand each other when these conversations are focused on a specified problem. Men are often accused of wanting to “fix things” too early on in a discussion. This frustrates men, who like to solve problems and to do it efficiently and who are in fact called upon frequently by women for precisely that purpose. It might be easier for my male readers to understand why this does not work, however, if they could realize and then remember that before a problem can be solved it must be formulated precisely. Women are often intent on formulating the problem when they are discussing something, and they need to be listened to—even questioned—to help ensure clarity in the formulation. Then, whatever problem is left, if any, can be helpfully solved. (It should also be noted first that too-early problem-solving may also merely indicate a desire to escape from the effort of the problem-formulating conversation.) Another conversational variant is the lecture. A lecture is—somewhat surprisingly—a conversation. The lecturer speaks, but the audience communicates with him or her non-verbally. A surprising amount of human interaction—much of the delivery of emotional information, for example—takes place in this manner, through postural display and facial emotion (as we noted in our discussion of Freud). A good lecturer is not only delivering facts (which is perhaps the least important part of a lecture), but also telling stories about those facts, pitching them precisely to the level of the audience’s comprehension, gauging that by the interest they are showing. The story he or she is telling conveys to the members of the audience not only what the facts are, but why they are relevant—why it is important to know certain things about which they are currently ignorant. To demonstrate the importance of some set of facts is to tell those audience members how such knowledge could change their behaviour, or influence the way they interpret the world, so that they will now be able to avoid some obstacles and progress more rapidly to some better goals.
A good lecturer is thus talking with and not at or even to his or her listeners. To manage this, the lecturer needs to be closely attending to the audience’s every move, gesture and sound. Perversely, this cannot be done by watching the audience, as such. A good lecturer speaks directly to and watches the response of single, identifiable people,fn2 instead of doing something clichéd, such as “presenting a talk” to an audience. Everything about that phrase is wrong. You don’t present. You talk. There is no such thing as “a talk,” unless it’s canned, and it shouldn’t be. There is also no “audience.” There are individuals, who need to be included in the conversation. A well-practised and competent public speaker addresses a single, identifiable person, watches that individual nod, shake his head, frown, or look confused, and responds appropriately and directly to those gestures and expressions. Then, after a few phrases, rounding out some idea, he switches to another audience member, and does the same thing. In this manner, he infers and reacts to the attitude of the entire group (insofar as such a thing exists).
There are still other conversations that work primarily as demonstrations of wit. These also have a dominance element, but the goal is to be the most entertaining speaker (which is an accomplishment that everyone participating will also enjoy). The purpose of these conversations, as a witty friend of mine once observed, was to say “anything that was either true or funny.” As truth and humour are often close allies, that combination worked fine. I think that this might be the intelligent blue-collar worker’s conversation. I participated in many fine bouts of sarcasm, satire, insult and generally over-the-top comedic exchange around among people I grew up with in Northern Alberta and, later, among some Navy SEALs I met in California, who were friends of an author I know who writes somewhat horrifying popular fiction. They were all perfectly happy to say anything, no matter how appalling, as long it was funny.
I attended this writer’s fortieth birthday celebration not too long ago in LA. He had invited one of the aforementioned SEALs. A few months beforehand, however, his wife had been diagnosed with a serious medical condition, necessitating brain surgery. He called up his SEAL friend, informed him of the circumstances, and indicated that the event might have to be cancelled. “You think you guys have a problem,” responded his friend. “I just bought non-refundable airline tickets to your party!” It’s not clear what percentage of the world’s population would find that response amusing. I retold the story recently to a group of newer acquaintances and they were more shocked and appalled than amused. I tried to defend the joke as an indication of the SEAL’s respect for the couple’s ability to withstand and transcend tragedy, but I wasn’t particularly successful. Nonetheless, I believe that he did intend exactly that respect, and I think he was terrifyingly witty. His joke was daring, anarchic to the point of recklessness, which is exactly the point where serious funny occurs. My friend and his wife recognized the compliment. They saw that their friend knew they were tough enough to withstand that level of—well, let’s call it competitive humour. It was a test of character, which they passed with flying colours.
I found that such conversations occurred less and less frequently as I moved from university to university, up the educational and social ladder. Maybe it wasn’t a class thing, although I have my suspicions it was. Maybe it’s just that I’m older, or that the friends a person makes later in life, after adolescence, lack the insane competitive closeness and perverse playfulness of those early tribal bonds. When I went back up north to my hometown for my fiftieth birthday party, however, my old friends made me laugh so hard I had to duck into a different room several times to catch my breath. Those conversations are the most fun, and I miss them. You have to keep up, or risk severe humiliation, but there is nothing more rewarding than topping the last comedian’s story, joke, insult or curse. Only one rule really applies: do not be boring (although it is also very bad form to actually put someone down, when you are only pretending to put them down).
Conversation on the Way
The final type of conversation, akin to listening, is a form of mutual exploration. It requires true reciprocity on the part of those listening and speaking. It allows all participants to express and organize their thoughts. A conversation of mutual exploration has a topic, generally complex, of genuine interest to the participants. Everyone participating is trying to solve a problem, instead of insisting on the a priori validity of their own positions. All are acting on the premise that they have something to learn. This kind of conversation constitutes active philosophy, the highest form of thought, and the best preparation for proper living.
The people involved in such a conversation must be discussing ideas they genuinely use to structure their perceptions and guide their actions and words. They must be existentially involved with their philosophy: that is, they must be living it, not merely believing or understanding it. They also must have inverted, at least temporarily, the typical human preference for order over chaos (and I don’t mean the chaos typical of mindless antisocial rebellion). Other conversational types—except for the listening type—all attempt to buttress some existing order. The conversation of mutual exploration, by contrast, requires people who have decided that the unknown makes a better friend than the known.
You already know what you know, after all—and, unless your life is perfect, what you know is not enough. You remain threatened by disease, and self-deception, and unhappiness, and malevolence, and betrayal, and corruption, and pain, and limitation. You are subject to all these things, in the final analysis, because you are just too ignorant to protect yourself. If you just knew enough, you could be healthier and more honest. You would suffer less. You could recognize, resist and even triumph over malevolence and evil. You would neither betray a friend, nor deal falsely and deceitfully in business, politics or love. However, your current knowledge has neither made you perfect nor kept you safe. So, it is insufficient, by definition—radically, fatally insufficient.
You must accept this before you can converse philosophically, instead of convincing, oppressing, dominating or even amusing. You must accept this before you can tolerate a conversation where the Word that eternally mediates between order and chaos is operating, psychologically speaking. To have this kind of conversation, it is necessary to respect the personal experience of your conversational partners. You must assume that they have reached careful, thoughtful, genuine conclusions (and, perhaps, they must have done the work that justifies this assumption). You must believe that if they shared their conclusions with you, you could bypass at least some of the pain of personally learning the same things (as learning from the experience of others can be quicker and much less dangerous). You must meditate, too, instead of strategizing towards victory. If you fail, or refuse, to do so, then you merely and automatically repeat what you already believe, seeking its validation and insisting on its rightness. But if you are meditating as you converse, then you listen to the other person, and say the new and original things that can rise from deep within of their own accord.
It’s as if you are listening to yourself during such a conversation, just as you are listening to the other person. You are describing how you are responding to the new information imparted by the speaker. You are reporting what that information has done to you—what new things it made appear within you, how it has changed your presuppositions, how it has made you think of new questions. You tell the speaker these things, directly. Then they have the same effect on him. In this manner, you both move towards somewhere newer and broader and better. You both change, as you let your old presuppositions die—as you shed your skins and emerge renewed.
A conversation such as this is one where it is the desire for truth itself—on the part of both participants—that is truly listening and speaking. That’s why it’s engaging, vital, interesting and meaningful. That sense of meaning is a signal from the deep, ancient parts of your Being. You’re where you should be, with one foot in order, and the other tentatively extended into chaos and the unknown. You’re immersed in the Tao, following the great Way of Life. There, you’re stable enough to be secure, but flexible enough to transform. There, you’re allowing new information to inform you—to permeate your stability, to repair and improve its structure, and expand its domain. There the constituent elements of your Being can find their more elegant formation. A conversation like that places you in the same place that listening to great music places you, and for much the same reason. A conversation like that puts you in the realm where souls connect, and that’s a real place. It leaves you thinking, “That was really worthwhile. We really got to know each other.” The masks came off, and the searchers were revealed.
So, listen, to yourself and to those with whom you are speaking. Your wisdom then consists not of the knowledge you already have, but the continual search for knowledge, which is the highest form of wisdom. It is for this reason that the priestess of the Delphic Oracle in ancient Greece spoke most highly of Socrates, who always sought the truth. She described him as the wisest living man, because he knew that what he knew was nothing.
Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
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