Learn to listen and listen to learn

Learn to listen and listen to learn

Carin-Isabel Knoop
Executive Director at Harvard Business School, Harvard University

“Simply populating your team with diverse perspectives and experiences doesn’t always translate into better performance. In fact, the uncomfortable truth is that diverse teams can underperform homogeneous teams if they’re not managed actively for differences among team members.” 

Professor Frances Frei and Anne Morriss 

Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader’s Guide to Empowering Everyone around You 

Learning to listen as kids 

Most of us have implored others –hopefully primarily children – to please listen. Often, kids don’t have the time or desire to do so. So we train them and ourselves to do so. Listening requires practice to take notice of and act on what someone says – be it a comment, advice, request, command, or compliment. 

Yet as we age, we stop thinking about and practicing a fundamental skill to survival. Sometimes we pretend to listen – while protecting our worldviews and scrutinizing anyone who and anything that may call them into question 

Many of us are still ruled by what Phil Tetlock of the Good Judgement project called “the inner dictator.” This reflex activates confirmation bias (to prove that our idea was the correct one). It triggers the desirability bias (making it easier for us to see what we want to see). We confuse our beliefs (what we hold to be true) with our values (what we deem important). 

Racism, biases, and prejudice often follow a similar pattern of responding to others emotionally rather than analytically. In doing so, we frequently categorize others into groups based on preconceptions and impute views or opinions based on them. Then, without knowing the person, we respond with fear, coalition-seeking, and visceral responses, leading to rejection and dehumanization. 

“I hear you,” Americans say these days when they want to make you feel better. Note that they don’t say I understand you or listened to you. Hearing is passive. One does not have a choice. Listening is active. Listen-ing takes effort and humility, and outside focus. All in very short supply in our modern stressed, reactive, narcissistic selves. We are short-circuited by social media to like, pass, react and judge. In turn, we respond just as rapidly and sometimes emotionally to these judgments. 

Listening requires suspending judgment long enough to free up the brain space to consider the words as they are said – not from whom they emanate nor for what they bring up in ourselves. When we learn more about brain science, we can understand how biases form, and how they might influence and regulate our thoughts and actions. Part of the issue is evolutionary — we pledge our allegiance to “tribes.” 

Promoting this kind of behavior is what I do all day as a case writer at Harvard Business School – case writers are professional discord creators in a time in which it can be risky to disagree. Below I describe how the case method works, what it can teach us about promoting diversity – of all kinds, especially thought – in organizations, and how I use it in my personal life. 

How orchestrating discord in the classroom… 

The case method goads about 90 people reading the same material to form camps with totally divergent opinions. Over 80-minute classes, the group learns with and from each other. It is a pedagogical approach to foster productive disagreement among participants. Rather than seeking consensus or guiding students to a “right” answer, it forces students — without ad hominem considerations — to humbly engage with the wisdom and skepticism of fellow learners to come away better informed and arrive at a more nuanced perspective. The process can help them develop empa-thy, too. Some of the most compelling cases see stu-dents challenging one another to revise and rethink their initial analyses, embracing new and fresh solu-tions adapted to the context. It challenges them to re-main authentic to their values and principles while ap-preciating and welcoming other people’s opinions — whether or not they ultimately change their minds and embrace those differing perspectives. 

At its best, when engaged with a cohort of fellow avid learners and problem solvers, the case method allows students to become better decision-makers and, ultimately, better leaders. “Cases stimulate curiosity about the range of opportunities in the world and the many ways that students can make a difference as leaders, wrote Nitin Nohria, our former Dean at Harvard Business School, in a recent issue of HBR on what the case study methods actually teaches us: “This curiosity serves them well throughout their lives. It makes them more agile, more adaptive, and more open to doing a wider range of things in their careers.”

… can help us build on organizational diversity

Fostering an inclusive workplace and a sense of belonging among employees requires encouraging the expression of diversity and the various thoughts and perspectives it affords: race, gender, sexual orientation but also geographic (suburban/urban/rural), and educational (levels and type). This goes beyond some of the recent “diversity theater” we have seen and the backlash in its wake. For more on the case method and its connection to diversity and inclusion, see this interview on the Ben Fanning CEO podcast. 

As our organizations become more diverse and more generations than ever are at work, we need to train for critical thinking and listening skills. It is about ensuring that everyone in the organization moves from understanding the diversity of persons and positions to truly embracing them and the value of their views, promoting an environment in which people accept the contribution of others. There can be no expression of diversity if we don’t listen to each other. 

Organizations need to provide opportunities to practice disagreeing with the status quo and questioning assumptions, and in doing so, help your community understand how our brains work. Soliciting different opinions, getting people to challenge the status quo and authority productively in our emotionally charged environment is fraught with real and emotional danger, writes my colleague Mel Martin. So we go quiet. Non-conflict can feel like harmony. 

However, with it, our mental muscles that deal with stress and conflict can atrophy. Ideas and people are not the same, and the very ideas that we need to realize the diversity of thought and the community we desire might include ideas that make us uncomfortable. More than likely, however, there is far more intellectual and political diversity in your team or workplace than you realize. 

Ways to make it easier for minority views to be really heard and to introduce these ideas and discomfort while also maintaining some necessary psychological safety can include using polls in meetings, assigning a so-called Devil’s advocate or a “Red Team” to take a contrary position; make it mandatory for people who defend an idea to attack it respectfully as in the Lincoln Douglas debate rules which have debaters take alternating sides to an issue in a series of debates. This 

practice should include leaders and managers. The idea is to help individuals distinguish task conflict from relationship conflicts (in which we ban people from our personal and social lives or ostracize them at work when we disagree with one of their ideas). 

In Think Again Adam Grant argues that unless we are aware of these tendencies and monitoring them constantly, we turn our opinions into our identities — and do the same for others. We confuse feedback on ideas with an ad hominem attack. 

Another good tool is the “left-hand column technique” designed by Chris Argyris, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School. In this exercise, participants break down what was said, what was thought to be said, and what was thought about what was said. This can help break conversations down into their essential parts, as well as analyze intent and avoid miscommunication. Researchers show how “psychological distancing” can be used to build trust and encourage tolerance. 

I practice this method in my approach to social dynamics and become my own contrarian – to read an article or statement, listen to a point of view or set of facts, and argue the pros and cons, see the world from different points of view, listening to (interior) voices that may not agree with our accepted point of view. 

Wanting to listen 

As I care for my father, I find myself focusing on listening again. When he speaks, especially about his difficult wartime youth, I stop what I am doing because I know that soon I will not be able to listen nor hear him again. That every word, like every breath, is counted. That I should listen to him without wishing the stories were different or wondering how I would have behaved in the situations he shares. 

Then when he falls back into his happy daytime slumber, I wonder what world we could build if we all listened to each other with such loving intensity and understanding that every word and our perception of it is finite and unique. 

Thank you for listening to my voice in writing. 

Carin-Isabel Knoop, inspired by her collaboration with Amram Migdal and Mel Martin. 

January 1, 2022

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