The Rare Skill of Listening to Others

One of the rules proposed by Jordan Peterson in his book 12 Rules for Life says: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t (Rule 9).

Peterson explains a simple rule proposed by American psychologist Carl Rogers to help us listen to what the other person is saying: Summarize what people have said to you, and ask them if you have understood properly. Sometimes they will accept your summary. Sometimes you’ll be offered a small correction. Other times you’ll be completely wrong. “Each person can speak up for himself only after he has first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately, and to that speaker’s satisfaction.1

We can all benefit from learning how to listen better to what others are saying, specially if we disagree with the other person’s argument. Instead of listening, we may often find ourselves constructing the answer we will fire at the other person once she finishes explaining her point of view. As Rogers explains, “the great majority of us cannot listen; we find ourselves compelled to evaluate, because listening is too dangerous. The first requirement is courage, and we do not always have it.” (Rogers, 1952)

Some advantages to summarizing the other person’s position:

  1. You’ll understand what the other person is saying, which you cannot always take for granted. “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.”2

  2. The act of summary helps in consolidation and utility of memory.

  3. It creates a barrier to the careless construction of straw-man3 arguments. For the speaking person to agree with your summary, you may have to argue even more clearly and succinctly than the speaker has managed.

After summarizing, you may find value in the other person’s arguments and learn something in the process, or hone your position against those arguments if you still believe they are wrong. You will also be much better at withstanding your own doubts.

“If you listen, instead, without premature judgement, 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.)4

Photo by Cody Engel on Unsplash

  1. Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, p. 241. 

  2. Carl Rogers, quoted by Jordan Peterson in 12 Rules for Life, p. 242. 

  3. Oversimplifying, parodying, or distorting your opponent’s position. “A straw man argument is a misrepresentation of an opinion or viewpoint, designed to be as easy as possible to refute.” cfr Bad Arguments

  4. ibid., p. 243 

biases conversations empathy listening thinking

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