Thursday, February 21, 2013

Listening with One Ear

Key Points

      Metaphors are terrific change agents
      There are multiple realities all of which have meaning to someone.
      Your truth is no more reliable than anyone else’s
      Multiple truths can create all sorts of dysfunction
      It is important to listen with one ear

If you can stay awake for the first 20 minutes of the movie, Life of Pi, it morphs into an interesting film. Mind you, it could do with a shot of adrenalin from time to time to keep the heart going but it gets to its destination in the end. The book of the same name is beautifully written. Because of that it much more captivating. Books seem to get lost in translation to a movie, given they have to fit the story into the attention span of the average moviegoer. It’s such a passive medium compared to how a book massages your mind: makes you work.

But this blog is not dedicated to critiquing movies. Mind you, I’ve always wanted to be a restaurant, book, movie or travel critic and it’s nice to indulge myself. There is a language and a style that critics can use that would be seen as socially unacceptable in most civilised circles: or at least get you a bleeding lip down at the local pub. It is a style that is suggestive and with more reading between the lines than a treasurer’s budget speech. It is fun to play with words, language and see what you can do with it.

Without going into too much detail, a young boy, Pi, gets shipwrecked and survives in an open boat for 227 days. During the investigation of the sinking of the ship he tells his story of initially escaping the ship with a Bengal tiger, a zebra, a hyena and an orang-utan. The zebra has a broken leg and is eventually eaten, the hyena kills the orange-tan, and the tiger kills and eats the hyena. In the end only Pi and the tiger survive, as he finds ways not to be eaten by the tiger. Needless to say he learns lots of things about himself during his adventure. The tiger eventually wonders off into the jungle when they finally hit land. The investigators don’t like this story. So he tells another where he escapes with his mother, the cook and a sailor with a broken leg. He tells how the cook kills his mother and the sailor, and that he eventually kills the cook. Clearly the characters and animals are interchangeable in the two stories: Cook-hyena; orange-tan-mother; sailor-zebra; tiger-Pi himself.

For me, there are two dimensions to this story, other than the obvious one of learning about yourself when confronted with adversity. The first is the wonder of metaphors and how we can learn so much from them. I was disappointed that the metaphor was explained in the movie by a dorky journalist. For me, metaphors should not be explained but left to the listener to make sense of. I use metaphors all the time to help people change their behaviour and they are immensely powerful. Metaphors contain embedded messages and the listener can decide whether or not they want to accept it or not. Because it is indirect the receiver doesn’t have to use any of the defence mechanisms to protect themselves, as people do when they are told something they don’t want to hear. It is up to them and is often effective in getting people to think differently. Choosing the right metaphor or sets of metaphors is important-I have a collection of them, stories, kids stories and so on. Stories don’t have to be true although they must not be about you, but about a third person removed that you ‘knew’. Perhaps this is worth a blog on its own-let me know if you’re interested.

The second dimension is that reality is in the eye of the beholder and we interpret it in myriad ways. I cannot tell you the number of times that I have had people tell completely different versions of events about their relationship, their experience in the workplace or whatever the situation is. Their stories can be so different you would be forgiven for thinking the players were even in the same universe let alone the same few feet.

This is brought into start reality when it comes to conflict involving relationship breakdown such as in a marriage or in a workplace, or in workers’ compensation cases between employee and employee, for example.

When I started out as a nurse, fairly young and naïve, it was rather easy to get caught up in the world of the client to whom you are listening. You are their carer, they are your client and there is an obligation to advocate for them. We become caught up in their reality. Studying psychology and also some rather sobering experiences taught me some valuable lessons.

I was horrified when I discovered that a partner or another relative could give a completely different set of experiences from my client. In later years I have come to expect in my work with organisations for several people to have completely different memories of their experience. In fact, these days I’m surprised when there is any agreement at all.

So, I learnt early in my career as a psychologist to listen intently with one ear. The other ear is listening for the other version, the other story or stories, the unspoken. Such is the world of cynicism that psychologists inhabit.

This is not to say that people cannot be trusted. Apart from the small percentage of psychopaths and similar personality disorders most people mean well. We are all narcissistic to a degree, have a tendency to fudge the truth towards our own benefit, need to protect our sometimes fragile egos with all sorts of defence mechanisms, are competitive and rely on beliefs rather than facts. But generally we don’t mean others too much harm except when the chips are down and we are under extreme threat. Humans are also capable of doing really nice things to each other and so called lesser species. Our distortion of reality is not a conscious or a deliberate activity.

 A second, related issue has to do with how the listener chooses to interpret or perceive what another says or does. Inevitably this gets distorted too by the listeners predilections, beliefs, values, and experience. This is a human frailty that the media, advertisers, and spin doctors and use to great effect every day: spinning our experience to their own ends. I spend a lot of time checking what others seem to think it was that I meant or said. Not difficult and worth the effort.

I think this reality issue has reinforced by my obsession with group processes, systems thinking and communities of practice. Therein, we can use ancient tribal concepts of listening to the stories of others and seeing how others interpret them. We can see when our thinking is out of kilter with that of others. In a group we get more effective and rational decision-making, for information sharing, for perspective giving, and for experience sharing.

When you think of it, it’s a wonder we manage to get anything done given we are all seeing the world and what happens in such completely different ways.  


  1. This reminds me of one of my favorite passages from Joan Didion's writing:

    “We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be 'interesting' to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest's clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely... by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.”

    I shall hereby intentionally listen with one ear so as t be able to hear others' stories too. ~Melanie

    1. This is brilliant. I must read more of Joan's work.

  2. On re-reading my post a question occurred to me. When we act with our unconscious mind is this in fact intentional? Are we responsible?

    I guess we are from a philosophical perspective. Maybe less so from a legal.