Thoughts about perceptions, imagination and communication inspired by Stumbling on happiness

Photo by krossbow

A few days ago I wrote about Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert and how revealing it is with regards to the fallibility of the human mind. One side effect of Gilbert’s delving into happiness is a long discussion about how we perceive others and the “filling in” processes that we automatically do whenever we imagine a situation. In other words, people perceptions are not equal reality. Or as Gilberts puts it:

Perceptions are portraits, not photographs, and their form reveals the artist’s hand every bit as much as it reflects the things portrayed.

The problem is that people actions are based on these imperfect perceptions of reality and not on reality itself. Or in other words:

Objective stimuli in the world create subjective stimuli in the mind, and it is these subjective stimuli to which people react.

This, as Gilbert explains, is a result of the fact that we are usually unaware that our brain is actively changing our perceptions, replacing missing pieces with assumptions and deductions. In other words, when we encounter a situation, there is a lot we don’t know about it. And instead of realizing that, our brains just make up for what we don’t know. This is a mistake, as Gilbert skillfully explains:

Your mistake was not in imagining things you could not know—that is, after all, what imagination is for. Rather, your mistake was in unthinkingly treating what you imagined as though it were an accurate representation of the facts.

As Gilbert stresses in his book, awareness in not a good enough cure for this mistake, as people make it even when they are aware that they are going to make it. Although I guess it is a good starting point. When awareness can’t do, we have to move to habits and processes that alow us to overcome our mind’s fallibility. As I also wrote a few days ago, one possible solution to this issue might be found in active listening, where you listen WITH the other person. This means you ignore your own thoughts and concentrate fully on understanding the point of view of the person you are communicating with in order to reduce the possibility of your brain needing to fill in blanks.



Listening WITH or Listening FOR

Have you ever felt someone was talking to you not with you? I was trying to sell my apartment a few weeks ago so I had many meetings with real estate agents. I remember sitting in some of these appointments and after a few minutes thinking to myself – “this guy is not talking with me – he is talking to me”. The guy went on and on about how great his agency is, about their system and its benefits etc. he did not start by asking me what I need. He did not notice that I understood the point he was making after the first minute and kept boring me for ten more minutes. He was so in his own world that there was no way I was going to connect with him on any level – personal or professional. In a profession that is built on trust, his lack of attention to me truly amazed me.

The whole situation reminded me of how Edgar Schien defined one of the main problems with helping in his book Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help (I wrote about this wonderful paragraph in the past):

The trap for the helper is to move too rapidly to solutions, to provide advice or guidance on the hypothetical problem and, thereby, cut off the opportunity to learn what the real problem might be. Working the hypothetical problem does little to equilibrate the relationship.

Then I was watching the above TED talk by Julian Treasure and heard this:

Ears are made not for hearing, but for listening. Listening is an active skill. Whereas hearing is passive, listening is something that we have to work at. It’s a relationship with sound. And yet it’s a skill that none of us are taught. For example, have you ever considered that there are listening positions, places you can listen from? Here are two of them. Reductive listening is listening “for.” It reduces everything down to what’s relevant, and it discards everything that’s not relevant. Men typically listen reductively. So he’s saying, “I’ve got this problem.” He’s saying, “Here’s your solution. Thanks very much. Next.” That’s the way we talk, right guys? Expansive listening, on the other hand, is listening “with,” not listening “for.” It’s got no destination in mind. It’s just enjoying the journey. Women typically listen expansively. If you look at these two, eye contact, facing each other, possibly both talking at the same time. Men, if you get nothing else out of this talk, practice expansive listening, and you can transform your relationships.

I love the idea that “Listening is an active skill”. It reminds us that it doesn’t just happen. It requires work. It requires as to be present and attentive. It is a skill one can develop.

I think it goes both ways. In professions that are based on relationships, and management is all about relationships, I think developing the ability to talk with and listen with is crucial

So my question is – are you talking to or with someone? Are you listening with or for?


Listen only to the message; talk only to the person

Photo by AndYaDontStop

Last week I was preparing for a long drive with many people in my car. In order to make room for bags in the back of my car I took out the basketball I always carry there and put it on the back shelf near the back window. Some guy I don’t even know, who was standing near me, saw me put the ball near the back window and told me that it is dangerous because if I will have to make an emergency stop something not tied flying from the back of the car is like throwing a huge heavy brick inside the car.

And you know what? He was right. But I didn’t listen. Why? Because of the way he said it. He said it in a condensing way that meant the only thought I had was: “How obnoxious is this guy”. And for a minute there I thought about leaving the ball there just for spite. Who is this guy – I don’t even know him – to talk to me like that, and tell me what to do?

Luckily, I thought again. I decided to ignore that instinct and take the ball down. Tie it down so it would not pose a risk. Because no matter how unfriendly the guy was, he was right. And that made me think of two things:

1. We tend to think that if we just make a rational argument people will agree to it. If we just use the right line of reasoning people will see the light and come around. Unfortunately, people don’t work like that. They have many emotional barriers that prevent them from assessing the situation in a rational way. So it does matter how we say things. How we offer new ideas. How we criticize. It is not only the validity of our arguments that will determine whether or not we will be listened to, but also the way we present these arguments.

2. We need to try to separate the issue from the person. Yes, the remark I got about the ball in the back of the car could have been phrased better. If he would have approached me and asked me if he could make a suggestion instead of just saying it in a smug tone, I might have accepted it more easily. But did his tone change the fact that he was right? More importantly, did his tone change the fact that I was risking my life just to spite some guy I don’t even know? Sounds crazy, but we do it every day. How many bright ideas are we missing because we don’t like the person who raises them or the way he acts in meetings? What advice did we fail to take because we were too emotional to separate it from its source and evaluate it on its merits alone?

Do these two ideas seem to contradict each other? Maybe. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that “the true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time”. But I don’t think they actually contradict. As communicators, we have no control over what goes on the mind of the other person, but we need to make sure we do as much as we can to help him get the message. The same way, we do have control over what is going on in our mind. And we have to do everything we can to understand what the other side is saying. Isn’t that what communication is really about?


Getting #feedback is hard

Photo by Criterion

I remember when I was in the Israeli Air Force an officer responsible for teaching one of the cadet courses and I had the following conversation:

Officer: Hey, you guys teach how to give feedback, right?

Me: Yes, do you want us to give a class to the cadets?

Officer: Yes, but I want you to teach them how to receive feedback.

Me: What do you mean?

Officer: We try to provide feedback all the time, but they keep arguing and talking back. I want you to teach them how to listen so my constructive feedback will be more effective.

I am reminded of this conversation every once in a while whenever I have trouble dealing with feedback myself. I ask myself from time to time should we teach people how to receive feedback?

While I would be inclined to agree that some people are very difficult when exposed to feedback – even constructive well intended one – my answer would generally be no. One of the first points I teach when I talk about feedback is very intuitive and usually is revealed by the students instead of lectured to them. Getting feedback is hard. There are a lot of reasons for this, many of them psychological and emotional. But I don’t really need to tell you that, as you probably felt it before. Everybody who ever got some feedback – and all of us have – felt it.

When I analyze it in hindsight I think the request of the officer suffered from a misunderstanding of one of the most basic principles of communication. In most cases, when there is miscommunication, it is the fault of the transmitter and not of the receiver. That is why I always try to refrain from saying “You don’t understand” and instead say: “I did not explain myself well”. Saying – “they just don’t listen” – takes the responsibility of your hands and puts it on the listener. The question is not if somebody else isn’t listening. The question is: are you talking in a way that will allow them to listen to you?

That is what I said to that officer. Teaching people how to receive feedback will probably not do any good, if you do not take the responsibility for giving true and effective feedback yourself. We should focus on how you give feedback and especially on ways of finding out why your cadets are unresponsive for you attempts to give them constructive feedback.

He did not like my answer. He did not come back.  I can guess why.  Getting feedback is really hard.

Do you take responsibility for giving constructive feedback or do you think that people are just not listening to you?



Listening and not listening at the same time

Photo by srboisvert


Dan Pink writes about a subject matter that I find important for every aspect of business and management (and politics). The concept of “listening to your customers”:

Give customers what they want.

It’s a sturdy principle of business, one that most of us endorse. But it’s also a principle that can carry seeds of its own demise.

Leadership and management are not a popularity contest. While listening to your clients, peers, employees etc. is not only important it is a must, knowing when to ignore them or do something they can’t even think about is just as important. As I wrote a few months ago:

I don’t know about you, but if a few years ago somebody would have asked me what do I want my cell phone to do, there is no way I would have said: “Oh, you know what, I want it to react to movements when I move it around so I can play games with it”. I don’t know it for a fact, but I think the people at apple just put that quality into the Iphone without people telling them that is what they want. And that is a one great quality for a product. That is a way to make it a purple cow.

It works with customers just as well as it works with employees. In all fields of life, the work of great change makers was first criticized, misunderstood and fought against. “Why the hell do we need that?” the critics ask. But the change makers are the ones that make an impact on our lives. This is the difference between incremental innovation and radical innovation. One improves on what you have; the other changes the rules of the game. As Henry Ford famously said: “If I have asked people what they wanted, they would have said: ‘a faster horse’”. This is how Pink summarizes it:

Enhancing a category is cool; creating a category is cooler. Providing people what they want is a smart tactic; giving people something they didn’t know they’re missing is an even smarter strategy. Listening to the customer can be helpful; listening to your own voice can be revolutionary.

Every word here can be applied to customer service, development of new products and more importantly, management of people. Listening to them is good. But giving them what they want is not always best. Like giving employees answers – they would want it, but it is not good for them. And this reminded me of what I was trying to say about effectiveness and efficiency:

What the definitions don’t tell us is the focus. Efficiency is about marginal improvements. We take the current situation and try to make it better. To make the most of what we have. To do better with what we have. And that is a very useful skill. But it rarely leads to huge leaps. And it rarely breaks the boarders and provides levels of performance we haven’t thought possible. Effectiveness, on the other hand is about change. Is about finding a better fit to our goal. It is making something work better, not in the margins, but in the core of its being. It is about finding the right solutions to the right questions. If you make something more effective, you are changing the way it works, re-inventing it (maybe a bit more similar to term Efficacious). And you are focused on the long-term effects.

Everybody will tell you that you should listen to your customers. But everybody tells you to do that, everybody else is doing it too. Why don’t you try to listen to them, but not listen to them at the same time? Now that is something special.


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What did you learn today?


Photo by Rick

I urge you to read this blog post by Naomi Simson describing the main points from Joe John Duran‘s lecture at the Entrepreneur Organization event in Barcelona. Most of the points reminded me of the things I constantly write about in this blog. I actually felt it is a good summary of what I believe in. The fact that similar lessons come from a serial entrepreneur who talks about personal life balance makes me proud and happy.

Two of my favourite quotes:

If you have to tell people how to do something you have got the wrong people. Tell them what is wanted and let them figure it out for themselves. Decision makers are more expensive but you cannot grow without them

I call this outcome management. We need to remember that the added bonus of this is that people grow up to be capable and creative. Then, the manager’s job is about communicating the right values to take into account in the decision making.

The best ideas come from those that listen the hardest… and have time to be creative. It is important to create an environment of listening. Joe says in his experience women are the best listeners

I think that listening is one of the most important skills to master. Again and again it comes up in stories of success. Successful companies that listen to their customers. Successful managers who listen to their employees. Successful communicators who listen to their audiences. The good thing is you don’t really need to do a lot in order to master it. Talk less. Ask more. That’s it. Everyday ask yourself – what is the one thing I learned today from/about my employees? If you can come up with one good answer every day, the effects will start to appear soon enough.