With civility and civil discourse under such assault these days – from none less than the President of the Unites States – I’ve been thinking a lot about how to be a better listener and how to hear other, even disagreeable points of view.
When I was a practicing lawyer and I would read a trial complaint or an appellate brief, I often marveled at how clear cut the case appeared – until at least I read the responding submission. This perhaps obvious realization continues to influence my approach to business today. Whether listening to an investment case or simply one manager’s complaint about another, I try to reserve judgment until I have heard the other side. I also try (with admittedly less success) to employ the same strategy in my use of Twitter, although I often think that the platform is perfectly designed to hear only the like-minded users one follows.
A related challenge is remaining open-minded when a banker is defending the ethics of modern financial markets, or a pharma executive is proclaiming the societal benefits of the drugs her company markets. Here the challenge is more subtle than simply hearing the other side; the problem verges on the mysticism of quantum mechanics. Let me explain: The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle teaches us in, simple form, that you can measure the position of an object or its velocity, but not both at the same time. The parallel I see in debating the ethics of banking or pharma is that these are complex subjects that few of us take the time to study in depth and those who do tend to be industry insiders. When these insiders seek to respond to criticism of their industry or just participate in the debate, they are often met with cries of “Well, they would, wouldn’t they?” Thus, the individuals with the most knowledge are disqualified from the debate, while those free of inside knowledge carry the day. This seems sub-optimal to me.
Fortunately, there are exceptions to this “scientific” rule. Academics, think tank scholars, and long-form journalists sometimes dedicate the effort to become quasi-insiders and join the debate from a knowledgeable but industry-independent position. These efforts should be supported with our attention and dollars. We should also seek out opposing viewpoints and listen to individuals who may very well be captive to their vantage points but who nonetheless have important knowledge to contribute to the debate. Returning to law and science one final time, I cite Albert Einstein, a greater fan of freedom of speech than of quantum mechanics: “Laws alone cannot secure freedom of expression; in order that every man may present his views without penalty, there must be a spirit of tolerance in the entire population.”