Thursday 2 March 2023

Why we Listen to Bad Ideas (2)

I ended my previous post on this topic with a promise to consider the boundaries to what we might be prepared to listen to, and I will come to that in this post (difficult though it is to establish clear boundaries).

But before I do so, I want to add to the positive reasons for listening to bad ideas.  I realised after posting the first post that I had missed a few of these.

The first is that we may learn something. Which is why, in the context of the work I do, which is largely based in Higher Education, I think this is so important. Somebody may be wrong, but listening to them may give us some insights; they may not be wrong about everything, and may even express a truth that we have missed along the way. Or at the very least, they may make it clearer to us why we disagree, and that is valuable.

A second reason is that wrong ideas can often stimulate better ones. That is one of the assumptions of brainstorming, for example, and why censoring self or others in that context is counter-productive. As we react against the bad idea, we may sharpen our understanding of our better alternative, or possibly see a new better alternative that we had not previously seen. 

Further, if we listen, we are better able to refute a bad idea. That works on two levels; on the level of information, we can more accurately identify where the person's thinking has gone awry if we listen to it; and at the level of emotions, we are more likely to be listened to, if we have first listened. We have bought, as it were, a psychological right to be heard: this is the law of reciprocity in action.

And thinking back to my early career in telephone sales, and then as a sales trainer. we always tried to hear all of a clients' objections to a pitch before answering any of them: which makes perfect sense. 

So, given my strong advocacy for listening to bad ideas, what do I see as the boundaries?

These are hard to pin down, but I think that we can recognise, at least, some principles.

One is that children should not be subject to ideas that will be harmful to their health, well-being and development. The modern notion that children are simply younger adults is wrong-headed. We know enough about developmental psychology to assign such idiocy to the bin.

That principle of limiting what is harmful extends also to adults. We all know that it is an abuse of speech to shout 'Fire!' in a crowded place. Likewise, the guidelines around the reporting of suicides are agreed by the press because we recognise the real risk to some vulnerable people of social contagion.

But how that principle applies in other contexts, and who decides, are difficult issues.  Reflecting on this with a colleague, I made a link with the boundaries to confidentiality in a coaching relationship. I am always very clear that confidentiality is not absolute: that if someone discloses that they are breaking the law of the land, or the policies of the University that employs them, or proposes to harm others or themselves, that I may have to tell someone else. So perhaps the same, or similar, criteria could apply to the limits of what we are prepared to listen to; and it would certainly be valuable to have a similar clarity on the subject, at the start of any such discussions.


With thanks to  Mimi Thian and raquel raclette for sharing their photos on Unsplash

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