Listening Creatively: Killing Giants and Catching Shapeshifters

Today we’ll be looking at Between People, a little book that uses metaphor to generate insights concerning one-on-one communication. The author is John A. Sanford, who was an Episcopal priest, a Jungian analyst, and one hell of a writer. Throughout the post, specific active listening skills will appear bolded.

Playing Catch

A theme throughout the book is that genuine conversation like a game of catch. All games have rules, which means only certain behaviors count as playing. (Catch, for example, is not the same as playing dodgeball or keep away.) Here, both parties must toss the ball so the other person can actually catch it. Using this metaphor as a launching pad, Sanford then discusses various active listening skills (which he calls “creative listening”), using both folklore and real-world examples from his work.

Conversationally, the way to see if the ball has been caught is to periodically check interpretations against intended meaning. This is the active listening skill of summarizing. When using terms you might be defining in different ways (which is more common than you might think), discussing anything heated, or before moving on to another topic, it is helpful to briefly summarize what you think you’ve heard and ask, “Do I have that right?” You should also invite the other person to do the same: “I want to make sure we’re on the same page. Would you mind summarizing what I just said?”

Catch is also largely non-judgmental. It does not involve feeling superior. It does not feed the ego. People therefore often find it boring. As Sanford puts it, people would often rather judge, admonish, and lecture than have a real conversation. But lecturing isn’t catch—it’s fetch. Professors play fetch with students. The “gold standard” for the student is the opinion and good will of the professor. If you start playing fetch (or juggling) when the other person wants to play catch, they’ll just stop playing.

This may create a resentment toward you that you don’t even suspect. When this happens, you also typically lose permission to influence. As Sanford notes, children often don’t listen to parents lecturing because they sense, at some level, that the lecture is just an easy way out of the conversation that should instead be happening. (Same with managers and employees.) Sanford compares creative listening to chopping down a large tree with an ax—you don’t have to know a lot in order to do it, but it is still hard work. You have to keep at it.

People often come to conversations with a sort of “meeting agenda,” a mental checklist of topics they would like to cover. You likely have an agenda too. Catch is ultimately about allowing both parties to work through their agendas in order to feel heard. Without this, there will often be no progress. It may seem counterintuitive, but to increase the other person’s receptiveness to your own agenda, often the best thing you can do is help them work through theirs first. Doing so is like giving a gift:

We can think of this devotion to listening as a sacrifice, for we sacrifice our own agenda for the time being, and devote our energy in a sacrificial way to the other person. This requires and develops maturity, for it takes maturity to be able to sacrifice in this way for the sake of communication (p .20).

Let the other person do most of the talking. Ask follow-up questions. If you listen and repeat back to them important words they just used, word for word, you will get them to say even more, to elaborate, to dig deeper. In addition to summarizing and repeating back, it also helps to listen for emotion. Instead of just assuming how the other person is feeling, label emotion and allow them to react (e.g., “It sounds like you’re exhausted.”) This is preferable, Sanford says, to direct questions, which press for a “solution.” (“Why haven’t you tried X?” “Well, what if you say Y?”)

Sanford shares that in his experience as a therapist people generally will give you three chances to be heard before giving up. If you can help them feel heard and work through their agenda, then they will be more likely to do the same for you. The more you co-explore and work through both agendas, the more discoveries you elicit.

Jack the Giant Killer

Whenever emotions are high, this can disrupt the game of catch. As Sanford states, “Our inflamed emotionality is like a huge wall, and the best thrown balls of the other person bounce off of it” (p. 34). Here Sanford references Marie-Louise von Franz’s The Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales.

Giants, Sanford notes, appear in the myths and folklore of many cultures. Consider the Jack tales of the Appalachian Mountains, where clever Jack must outwit the giant to achieve his aim. What if, Sanford asks, the giant is one’s raging emotions and Jack represents the rational ego? Or consider fire and ice giants of Nordic mythology, representing, Sanford says, hot and cold anger, or the story of The Spirit in the Bottle, from the Brothers Grimm:

A man wandering in the woods finds a corked bottle beneath a tree. He hears a voice inside, begging him to uncork the bottle. He does, and a giant genie emerges and threatens to devour the man. The man responds by expressing doubt a genie so huge would really have the power to fit in such a tiny bottle. To prove him wrong the genie goes back into the bottle…and the man quickly corks it. He makes the genie promise that if he releases him again, the genie will be his servant.

The giant, and the genie in the above tale, has tremendous power and energy—but is also out of control. In Sanford’s words, the giant is “largely unconscious.” This lumbering danger can either devour the rational ego or be tamed and put to productive use. You need the giant doing your bidding, not chasing you and yelling, “Fee-fi-fo-fum.” This keeps you out of fight or flight and ensures you can thoughtfully respond instead of unconsciously react. It takes work to create the space and self-awareness necessary to notice passing emotions without being consumed by them.

When you’re feeling something strongly, anything, learn to flag it. Apply labeling to yourself. A trick I learned from John Miller is to make a fist with your index and middle fingers pointing straight (like a “gun”), hold this where your belt buckle would be, and mentally note, “I am feeling X.” Name it, whatever it is. This will help you step out of the feeling and take a more third person view, creating a little space (more on this later). (Here you will find some other techniques that may help.)  

If you have the strength and creativity, then you can help others recognize their emotions and create space around them as well. As Sanford notes, this requires a certain amount of psychological awareness. Emotions are “strange attractors.” It is easy to become “infected” by negative emotion and retaliate in kind. It requires strength to accept another’s emotions without succumbing to your own. The key is to demonstrate recognition without judgment or expectation. This, Sanford says, is also to give a gift. It’s difficult, but it helps you too. The more you put in the hard work of responding maturely, the more mature you become.

The Protean Sleights

Here Sanford turns to Greek mythology. Proteus, the old man of the sea, was the shepherd of Poseidon’s flock. Every day at noon he would climb out of the water and rest on a rock with the seals. People knew they would find him there and came to ask questions, knowing that Proteus could see the future. But he was also a shapeshifter.  

When people came to ask their questions, he would not answer straightaway. He would change shapes. He might turn into a lion, then into fire, a tree, a dragon. This would frighten most people away. Or they would lose track of him and give up. If a person persisted, however, if they held on, then Proteus would tire and turn back into the old man of the sea, and only then provide a straight answer to the question asked.

Proteus, Sanford notes, is all of us. When you ask someone a question and they evade and change the subject, it is like they are shapeshifting. People “play Proteus,” as Sanford puts it, for two reasons. Either they find what you’re saying disconcerting, or they want to have some effect on you without taking responsibility. Sanford outlines three such “Protean games.” The first he calls “Shifting the Ground.”

This is the typical politician, dodging the question asked. Let’s say you want to discuss with someone how they behaved in a meeting with an external vendor. Instead of focusing on the issue raised, they keep bringing up your decision to hire the vendor in the first place. It’s, “Hocus pocus change the focus.” They are dodging the issue, and you need to dodge their distraction. If you take the bait and start defending yourself, then the ground has been shifted. Instead, you should say something like, “If we need to revisit that we can, but first we need to discuss X.”

The second Protean game Sanford calls “The Bird in the Bushes.” This has to do with veiled remarks. Here, someone makes a comment, and you sense an undercurrent, an added, implied meaning. It is like you hear something in a nearby bush that flutters and chirps. You assume it’s a bird, but to really know…you would have to go look in the bush.

Say you give a talk and ask another presenter how you did. They say, “Well, good, but your work is different, isn’t it?” Of course, this makes you pause and think. As Sanford notes, often once you’ve thought about what the real message might have been…the perpetrator is long gone. Kicking yourself, you later think of what you should have said. Let’s say you ask and receive the reply that of course your talk was better because your work is not as complicated. (There’s the bird!)

Learning to look “in the bush” is, to me, one of the most powerful metaphors in Sanford’s book. It is far more helpful than the oft-repeated nugget of corporate wisdom that you should just “assume positive intent.” Though well-meaning, this advice is naïve. It ignores both the reality of corporate politics and frankly human nature. The fact is that colleagues do not always have your best interest at heart and sometimes do not want you to succeed. Further, at times you must work with toxic people. Another common piece of advice is to “trust your gut.” Well, often you cannot do both. When your gut tells you there is a “bird in the bushes,” to just “assume good intent” is to pretend otherwise.

A quick aside might be helpful here. In his excellent “Three Puzzles of Mindreading,” Bertram Malle draws a distinction between “effect” and “cause states.” Effect states, such as emotions, are inferred as caused by what has happened. Cause states, such as desires and intentions, are posited as the causes of actions. In general, effect states are much easier to infer. As discussed above, labeling emotion helps you vet such inferences and also gets the other person to say more.  

Cause states, on the other hand, have more to do with intention. Borrowing a page from philosopher Alexander Rosenberg, this “intentionality” is what distinguishes an action from a behavior. Consider, for instance, the difference between a blink and a wink. Unlike blinking, winking is typically done to convey something. In other words, it’s an action and, as such, it has a meaning behind it. And this brings us back to our Protean game: This underlying meaning is the proverbial “bird in the bushes.”

When people play The Bird in the Bushes, they are trying to maintain plausible deniability. They are aided by the fact that cause states are more difficult to infer—and likely implicitly know this. Here your “mindreading” may more often veer into projection and catastrophizing. This is likely precisely what “assuming good intent” is meant to avoid. A better way out of this trap however is to build the habit of using your suspicions as a trigger for new responses. Don’t assume positive intent, but don’t do the opposite and just assume bad intent. Instead, notice what is happening and learn to look in the bushes.

Build a habit of automatically repeating back what was said and asking follow-up questions. Rinse and repeat. If you suspect the other person does not have good intent, why just let them off the hook? Keep them talking. Even if they’re lying—and if they’re playing this game then they probably are—your repeating back and probing will still put them in the hot seat. Even if they don’t come clean, they will still know that you’re onto them, and it will often appear to others that they are digging their own hole deeper. So instead of just assuming what is “in the bushes,” take it as an opportunity to practice your active listening skills.

This brings us to Sanford’s final Protean game, “You Shouldn’t Feel That Way.” This is when you share with someone how something they did made you feel, and they respond by arguing why you’re misinterpreting the situation. The trick being pulled, Sanford states, is that the other person is trying to turn a simple statement about feelings into an intellectual debate. That you in fact felt the way you did is just that, a fact. This is separate from other associated beliefs or interpretations. When someone says, “Well, you shouldn’t feel that way,” they are in fact changing the subject.

As Sanford notes, this ignores that feelings cannot be eliminated by shoulds and oughts. Sometimes people playing this game are genuinely trying to help. Sometimes they are not skilled at discussing emotions. Often, however, people go this route because intellectual debate is more in their comfort zone. When you tell someone how something they did made you feel, it can feel to them like an accusation. They may then be prone to shifting the ground (or changing shape!) and shepherding you into a debate they feel they can “win.”

To avoid this, remember that, as Sandford puts it, “Feelings are facts, and as such they are not arguable, nor do that have to be justified, for they simply are.” As an example, say you share with your manager how the behavior of a colleague made you feel. Further, you are often left feeling this way after interacting with this person. Your manager responds by saying, “Well, you need to assume positive intent,” and continues by explaining what the person in question may have been trying to do.

Your manager failed to appropriately respond to your feelings and in the process probably made you feel worse. Telling someone to “assume positive intent” often feels dismissive, like you’re being waved aside. Here you need to stick to your guns or, rather, “stick to your feelings.” Feelings are facts of relationship, and, in a relationship, it is our feelings that need to be discussed most of all. To quote Alvyn M. Freed, “Your feelings are as real as your big toe. Do you need a reason to have a big toe?” Of course not.

In summary, to avoid being pulled into a Protean game, you must first recognize that one his happening. As Sanford states, “But to see what is happening we need to keep a sentry posted. We need to detach a portion of our awareness and set it aside where it is in a position to see what is happening in a personal transaction.” This is sometimes referred to as “perceptual positions,” a concept from Fritz Lang. Develop the habit of viewing your own interactions as though you are watching a stage play. Observe your own responses and behavior and reactions as though you’re a character in this play.

If you’re also the author and director of this play, sitting in the auditorium, how would you change this character that is also you? What would you want this character to do differently? These desired changes should become habits you build to the point that they become automatic reactions to specific triggers or scenarios. When A happens, you do B. When emotions get heated, or when you suspect a bird in the bushes, you learn to pause, to step out of first person, to create some space, to label what is happening, and to use your creative listening skills.

This will help you become more conscious about the game of catch. You’re helping the other person, and you’re helping yourself as well. As Sanford eloquently puts it, “When you genuinely listen and the other person feels heard, this decreases their sense of isolation in the world. This has a healing effect on the other and a maturing effect on you.”

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