Authors: Jordan B. Peterson
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
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. “
is what happened.
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.)
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
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,
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
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
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,
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
, 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.