Listening Instead of Telling, Hans Heesterbeek’s excellent blog post, inspired me to write a long-planned essay on the importance and practice of listening. But then I came across the following letter from Mr. Spock, precipitated by a recent controversy in New York State. What you would add or change to Mr. Spock’s advice? Please comment below.
An open letter from Spock to State Education Department Commissioner John King
Dear Commissioner King
Your recent experience at the public forum on New York State’s Common Core Standards, where you faced a barrage of shouted, angry criticism, is an example of righteous efforts – on both sides – escalating beyond what is good.
What was at the core of this unfortunate situation? I believe your eminent linguist, S. I. Hayakawa, was insightful when he said, “Underlying virtually all our attempts to bring agreement is the assumption that agreement is brought about by changing other people’s minds.” Instead, the basis for building effective solutions comes from understanding each other.
As a Vulcan, my long-instilled training and lifetime practice in logic divorced from emotion has enabled me to find the meaning in what people say without reacting to the way they said it. It enables me to explore all aspects of a situation without the distorting bias of my own assumptions. While this method has served me well, there is none more fully effective for understanding others than the Vulcan Mind Meld. It enables me to enter the mind of another, to join our minds.
As you may know, even among Vulcans, this method requires great skill that comes from years of intentional training and practice. Nonetheless, I would like to recommend to you and your fellow humans a method of similar potential, accessible to all. Outlined below, I call it The New Vulcan Mind Meld.
- Start by saying to yourself that you really want to understand and learn from the other person. Make a conscious effort to understand not just what they are saying, but where they are coming from, their understanding of the world, and how their ideas all come together to make sense for them. Not so you can find a flaw in their faith or reasoning, not so you can find a leverage point to change their thinking, but so you can understand and learn from them. You might try the Vulcan prescription, “My mind to your mind, my thoughts to your thoughts,” or perhaps the Spanish proverb, “Every head is a world.”
- Even when you believe that you understand someone or something, exercise some doubt. Consider that your understanding may still, in some way, be incorrect or incomplete. This will enable you to keep an open mind and to continue to learn. If you really want to understand something, you can’t believe it. Invoke the Talmudic teaching, “Teach your tongue to say ‘I don’t know.’”
- Enrich your understanding by learning from people with different backgrounds and perspectives. Singular points of view and simple explanations are easy to understand and the solutions they yield are easy to implement. But that doesn’t make them right or good. Learn and appreciate the real complexity of your world. As it says in your Sayings of the Fathers, “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.”
- Answering someone’s question assumes that you understood it. It is not necessary or even useful that you answer every question. More important is to clarify and understand the question and why it makes a difference to the person who asked it.
Find the commonalities, not just the differences. In my experience with humans, I have found too often that the few differences among you far overshadow the many things you have in common. (An example of this, which I’m told humans find quite humorous, is given by Emo Phillips.)
- Lastly, because this method is so different from your prevailing norms, find a teacher, a guide, a person whose expertise is in this method of communication. This individual will not favor one party over another, or be concerned about the outcome. Rather, their role will be only to facilitate the process, to guide and guard this method.
I suspect that adversarial, polarized, divisive, exclusionary, competitive ways of working have a tenacious hold on your species. Nonetheless, and all the more, you must try to work together. With the sad recognition that yours is not the only situation on earth that warrants this advice, please circulate this letter widely.
With sincere appreciation for the delights and difficulties of human communication,
Live long and prosper.