In Favor of Empathetic Listening

I.

Sometimes, when you try and have a discussion with someone, you find that they’re a complete idiot and they aren’t understanding anything you say; that you have no common ground; and that talking to them is a waste of time. So now you just want to angrily masturbate so you can calm down.

In those cases, it’s possible that what you’ve actually done is been a complete idiot, who refused to understand anything the other person said; that you ignored any possibility of common ground; and that you wasted everybody’s time by angrily masturbating on someone instead of having a discussion with them.

One indication that you may have done this is that over the course of the conversation, the number of times you made a claim to the effect that someone else was wrong is larger than the number of times you either: asked a question, or rephrased your interlocutors position and then waited for confirmation that your rephrase was correct.

I originally wrote this with political or philosophical debates in mind, but make sure you acknowledge that what I’m saying here applies to all disagreements given the right adjustments of case. That means romantic, interpersonal, family, religious, whatever.

If you make a claim with the idea that it’s going to explicitly counter the perspective of the person you’re talking to, you’ve entered a cognitive space that is completely divorced from the cognitive space of the person you’re talking with. If you’ve done this, the chances are strong that the words you’re using no longer mean the same thing they would if your interlocutor used them. You two no longer exist in the same space. How the hell are they supposed to even understand you?

The best thing that Wittgenstein ever said was that all problems of philosophy were problems of language. What people don’t realize about this was that the way to solve this problem is not to do more argument about what a discussion is, it’s actually just to develop perceptual empathy. 

II.

If you can’t tell your interlocutor what they just said to their own satisfaction, and if you couldn’t make a point for them that advanced their argument, then you do not deserve to be described as ‘having an argument’ with that person. ‘Having an argument’ is a descriptor that entails too much rarefied historical prestige when compared to the activity that you’re currently engaging in.

Maybe you think that’s harsh. I invite you to imagine why I might have said it.

In this case, you might be having an argument at that person, or to that person. But there’s a reason that it sounds stupid when I say that ‘honest argumentation to/at our theoretical opponents is the best way to test the quality of our thought, etc.’ If you don’t argue with someone, you aren’t doing anything worthwhile, even if you pretend to be arguing.

This is a point of practice. It involves finding people whose opinions disagree with yours, listening to them, repeating their own positions back to them until they are happy that you have understood their position in as much detail as they feel like is necessary, and only then saying a word for the benefit of your own position.

You might be wanting to tell me ‘But Nos, if I do that, then I’ll never get any chance to argue against the evil Fascist/Communist/Socialist/Leftist/Alt-Right/Centrist menace! They’ll take up all my time filibustering and I’ll never get a chance to convince them!’ 

Good. Now you understand how counterproductive it is from a game-theoretic perspective to treat intellectual discourse as if it were a competition. Hopefully, this will make you stop treating it that way in practice.

If you risk listening, you might actually become a better person, too! There’s a reason that Christ recommended turning the other cheek. And there’s also a reason he recommended examining the beam in your eye before you check the mote in your brother’s.

If you think there’s more to be gained by advancing your perspective at the expense of mutual understanding than there is to be gained by risking your time and understand something new about the human condition — such as, for example, what sort of psychological orientation it takes to endorse whatever position of theirs you think is reprehensible, then what even is your ultimate end goal, dude?

Do you think your position is correct, in a once-and-for-all, correspondence with reality achieved sort of sense? Re-examine your assumptions. We’re a bunch of chimps, and our cognitive faculties are best adapted to functioning in the context of close-knit, intimate social relationships probably involving fewer than one hundred and fifty moving parts. 

In a world this interconnected and complicated, if there was such a thing as truth, you and I would be too stupid able to think it. The Good can’t be just being right any more, now it also has to include being kind. We have to move past the idea that being right is sufficient.

If you want horrible things to happen slightly less, as I do, then a better modus operandi is to reject the assumption that you are correct, reject the assumption that they might be ‘correct’ (or else why are you arguing with them), and embrace the pursuit of why they take the pre-theoretical position they’re currently assuming. 

What is it about that position that prompts your interlocutor to engage with the world the way that they do? It’s something pre-theoric, I assure you. Telling them they’re stupid is wasting time. What can you do to shine a light on the perspective that they might not have examined in such and such a way?

One way of defining insanity is an inability to notice when your modes of behavior no longer work. We’re all complete lunatics. Sometimes, though, we might just have an insight that will make someone else a little bit less insane. 

Failing to adapt your communication behaviors to optimize the chance that they’re going to get you is tantamount to theft. If you don’t engage in a way that makes it easier for people to listen to you, you might be stealing from them.

You might be wondering why I’m writing this essay this way, if I’m telling you to be kind. The reason is that I’m writing it with the idea that you are a competent listener in mind. You can treat it like an exercise: if I can listen to this grumpy asshole tell me how much I suck at listening for this whole essay, then I can listen to anyone. 

I’m also writing it because I’m writing it to myself, and I can be a pretty poor listener too. I’m writing it because I want all of us to change, and to be better.

In the course of an honest attempt at listening, something might happen to you that you didn’t expect, which is that you will learn something about why you endorse the pre-theoretical aesthetic you currently assume. 

Which will be a spooky experience.

This is not expectable because what you learn will be prior to the level of assumption that you usually speak at. By honestly confronting and entertaining assumptions at a pre-propositional level, you will feel your own pre-verbal assumptions start to shift. That will make you aware of them, which —  trust me —  is always a good thing.

Even if you return from your adventure in the enemy camp just to go back to believing exactly the same thing you did just before, if you try it then at least you’ll have worked a bit on your listening skills, right? You might have even behaved in a way that made you respectable, which makes your position even more attractive than the best ‘argument’ for it you can produce.

In a public discourse that is terminally screwed by tribalism, the most heroic activity is to go to who you think is your worst enemy and listen to them consciously, thoughtfully, engagedly and without interruption until they’ve finished speaking. You can’t get more intellectually valorous than that. If nothing else, bear it in mind. 

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