Main point: Our gut tells us that any argument can be made more effectively with more logic and evidence. So we’re tempted to pile them up when we feel strongly. Last night, I saw a demonstration of the value of keeping it short: You are more likely to be heard more correctly.
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Last night I learned a strong lesson about talking—at a listening workshop.
Reach Out Wisconsin organizers Davi Post, Michael Cummins, and Dave Aceti ran an experiment based on a technique Post uses in his mediation and counseling work.
The three had developed an active-listening exercise intended for political conversation. They invited twelve friends and ROW regulars—six with liberal values and six with conservative—to take it for a test spin.
They split us into small groups with two participants and a timer in each, and gave us an issue to discuss with these instructions:
- The first speaker makes one point in 30 seconds.
- The listener ‘reflects’ by describing in his or her own words what they understood, in less than 30 seconds.
- If the speaker can then say, “Yes, that’s what I meant. I feel I’ve been understood,” the listener has succeeded. The speaker and listener switch roles.
If not, the process repeats until the speaker is satisfied that the listener understands.
During the evening, we each got the chance to be speaker and listener several times. The exercise seemed restrictive at first, even silly. We felt like experienced ice skaters being forced to trace figure eights.
I noted only a few weak spots in anyone’s listening skills. For example, when listening to my partner express a classic libertarian position on health insurance, I noticed my mind reflexively accessing mental files containing other things I knew about libertarian philosophy. I had to consciously resist adding any of them when I reflected what I’d heard him say. But that wasn’t very hard.
What was harder was summarizing when a speaker jammed several points into a short statement.
The first exchange provided a good example. Two participants volunteered to try the technique in front of the whole group, choosing the topic of Wisconsin’s voter-ID requirement. In support of repeal, the first speaker mentioned the need to increase turnout; the problem that some voters lack birth certificates; delays at the polls; and something else I forget.
Her listening partner couldn’t repeat it back very well. None of the rest of us felt confident that we could, either. She spoke for only a little more than the 30-second time limit but still left us all behind.
You would think our brains could handle at least that. But throughout the evening, the same thing happened in other discussions. When my partner confined his remarks to one point with only one or two supporting observations, I could easily put what he’d said into my own words in a way that won his approval. And when I made my points succinctly and simply, I almost always heard them reflected back accurately.
But the discussion would trip up whenever the speaker tried to cover too much ground.
We all noticed it. If the speaker dumped out several points or arguments in one load, we inevitably missed some. Often, as listeners, we’d pounce reflexively on the one we disagreed with. One participant said he’d even noticed his attention drawn to only one offending word in an overloaded statement.
Post said the idea of staying with one point was a standard technique, but that they had imposed the 30-second limit only to keep the exercise moving. They hadn’t anticipated it would make discussion more effective. But it did. It certainly made it easier to stick with one point.
The idea that less is more was not news to me. When I ran for office last year, my campaign manager and my messaging consultant were always telling me, “Make it shorter! Still shorter!” And I’m not making this up: I got one candidate’s questionnaire from a local newspaper with four good, solid questions and instructions to answer in 80 words or less.
At the time, I saw it as nothing more than accommodating the voters’ short attention span for local races.
But after last night, I’m seeing that advice from a different angle. Don’t force your listener to process several ideas before giving them an opportunity to think, respond, or ask questions. Break your argument into several short and clear statements, and you’re more likely to be understood.
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- In normal conversation, we tend to continuously pass judgment as we listen—is that remark true or false? Good or bad? Do I agree or disagree? When this exercise forced us to turn off that particular form of mental busy-ness, comprehension came much more easily.
- Ego is always involved because we cannot help but be eager to win respect, credibility, and other forms of approval. But that drive often makes conversation turn competitive. Our desire for ‘winning’ didn’t go away in this exercise, but it was channeled more constructively. The only ego-boost this exercise allowed was our conversation partner saying “Yes, you understood me correctly.” So our egos were gainfully employed rather than wandering around making trouble.
- The careful listening didn’t help with at least two other conversation glitches.
First, hearing what you want to hear. In one exchange, the speaker shared a fact: “Some eligible voters do not have drivers’ licenses.” The listener reflected that by saying, “I heard that you have a concern that legitimate voters might not have drivers’ licenses.” The speaker heard what she had hoped to hear and replied, “Yes, that’s what I said.”
But I couldn’t help but notice the listener had subtly turned the statement of fact into an opinion. That didn’t disrupt their ability to complete this exercise, but my guess is that glossing over something like that would take a bite out of a real conversation.
Second, talking past each other. Defense spending was the topic of another conversation. One partner presented two separate arguments on the question “How should we deal with the risk of being attacked?” The other partner responded with two separate arguments around the question “How should we refrain from attacking others?” As their timer, I stopped them after two rounds and asked if they had noticed they were talking past each other. They hadn’t. But once they were aware of it, they were eager to engage with each other on both questions.
- None of the participants could say, at least while we were together last night, how we would use this technique or these insights in ‘live’ political conversation. Speaking for myself, I know the frustration of using active listening techniques with a conversation partner who has no inclination to do the same. When the conversation is done, I understand what he thinks, but he remains clueless about what I think. And probably doesn’t even notice.