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Jun 29 2012

Filling in each other’s blanks: The importance of listening

Why do we talk to people? Why do we bother to watch other people’s videos and read each other’s blogs? Why do we keep up with our friends, find new people to follow on Facebook, and converse with others in comment sections? Why do we take the time to connect with people? Certainly we may enjoy their company and find pleasure in talking to them, but we also do it as a way of making ourselves more complete as individuals. We learn things from other people, because they provide us with information that we might have missed.

Most of us make an effort to engage in reasoned and logical thought to the best of our ability, but our personal best is surely not the best. None of us is a self-contained generator of perfectly accurate knowledge. An individual person isn’t able to devise theories, models, explanations and predictions which are forever unassailable. We use the facts and the mental prowess that are available to us, but every one of us is inevitably lacking in certain respects. A single person doesn’t know everything, and in our personal understanding of a given situation, there may be aspects that we’ve neglected to account for.

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously described “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns”. In the case of a known unknown, we know that there is an open question that needs to be resolved, but we may not have the information necessary to answer it. An unknown unknown, however, is an issue that we aren’t even aware of. We don’t know enough to know that the question exists. The matter of what its answer may be is something that’s entirely overlooked, because we aren’t aware that there is an answer or that an answer is needed. With known unknowns, we at least know what kind of answer we need to look for. But with unknown unknowns, we have no idea of what it is we’re looking for, or even that we should be looking for anything.

This is where other people come in. We may have our own unknown unknowns – facts that we weren’t aware of, or lines of reasoning that we failed to imagine or properly work through. Other people can provide these to us, essentially filling in our blank spots. Our own thought processes might be compromised by a less than thorough grasp of everything that’s related to the topic at hand, and others may have a better understanding of this than we do. We can only take into account what we know to take into account, whereas other people can tell us about things we hadn’t even considered.

This is the defining feature I’ve found in the people I talk to and whose work I keep up with. They have insights that are obvious in retrospect, but I still couldn’t have come up with them on my own. They contribute to my understanding of things in ways that I might not have stumbled across if I had only kept to myself.

That’s what makes it so important to listen to people who have had experiences that you haven’t. For instance, some men doubt the very possibility that sexual harassment at atheist and skeptic conferences is a serious issue, because they haven’t personally witnessed it or been subjected to it. The experience of feeling threatened by the behavior of men in such a context may be completely alien to them. But when several high-profile atheist women tell you that this is indeed a problem that isn’t being adequately addressed, your own unfamiliarity in this area is no reason to disregard their familiarity. Listening to them will provide you with a better understanding of the situation than ignoring them. They have exactly what you need to fill in one of your blank spots.

Similarly, when the Center for Inquiry’s Ontario branch proposed dressing in drag to support transgender people, they genuinely didn’t understand why this would be offensive. But because they were willing to listen to everyone who explained why this was a bad idea, they eventually came to realize that they shouldn’t go ahead with this.

Ultimately, this is just a very detailed way of saying that we can benefit by learning from each other, but it seems that far too many people are either unaware of this, or don’t care to listen to anyone but themselves. It shouldn’t be difficult to recognize that other people can have useful and relevant contributions as well, and your personal view of a situation isn’t necessarily the final word on it. We each have an incomplete picture of how things work, but by putting each of our respective pieces together, we can build a more thorough understanding of reality.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Why do we talk to people?

    Because we sound crazy when we talk to ourselves alone?

    (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

    Because we’re human and that’s what humans do? Can’t help it?

  2. 2
    thelaymanatheist

    It’s unfortunate that this is even an issue. There’s always going to be people who attend the public gatherings after the conventions who have the wrong idea…Until we develop a solution.. Have fun.. and stick to the buddy system.. and Communicate..especially if by communicating you put the people with the wrong idea in their place…

  3. 3
    baal

    Excellent as always Zinna.

    I swear you have my thoughts ahead of me and much better organized and better detailed and… This is probably an artifact how you make your sentences / word choice and such but I really like that I don’t need to do mental translation to pick up what you’re conveying.

    I try to consume a diversity of thought specifically to help me identify blanks. Telling that something is missing is a task the human brain is poorly suited to do.

  4. 4
    Otto Tellick

    The first 5 paragraphs plus the first sentence of the 6th are dead-on, pitch-perfect, and indisputable. They certainly apply to the two examples you gave, but would apply as well to essentially every topic of debate. The exact same perspective applies to any collaborative task. It strikes me as simply a matter of extending the notion of peer review. When the issue at hand involves personal perceptions of social/interpersonal behaviors, each of us needs to recognize that everyone we encounter qualifies as our peer and deserves to be listened to when they voice their own sincere concerns or sincerely question our assertions.

    The expression “far too many people … don’t care to listen to anyone but themselves” is intriguing, but probably not an adequate summation of the problem. On the one hand, there are the “ragged individuals” (aka trolls) who enjoy hearing themselves speak, but this does not always mean that they are actually listening to what they themselves are saying – they sense the sounds, the tone, the rhythm, and they probably imagine/anticipate the emotional response of their audience, but the actual meaning of what they say might not be their primary concern. On another hand, there are the members of a given “team” or “hive mind”, where individual responses depend almost entirely on how a given “leader” chooses to respond – i.e. they listen only to their chosen leader.

    Here’s hoping that FTB forums, and social events of interest to the FTB community, will prove unsatisfying to the former, and constructively jarring and liberating for the latter. Thank you for a post that moves us all in the right direction.

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