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On Human-to-Human Communication Protocols

Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.

— Winston S. Churchill

People are amazing. Magical, even. I’m a science nerd, and I remember from my AI research days — back when we were looking to what the brain does so as to derive insights into how to make computers think — it was shocking to realize that we know so very little about what the brain does and how it does it. We’ve made enormous strides in the past half-century, but we’re still at the very beginning of human knowledge about human cognition.

And so I feel justified in using the word magical. Because human brains are, in a sense, a sufficiently advanced form of technology and thus, as the Arthur C. Clarke quote goes, indistinguishable from magic. We’ll learn more and more about them in the decades and centuries and millennia to come, but the self-referential nature of the endeavor — human brains studying human brains — adds a complex, nigh-paradoxical gloss to the whole journey. There’s an art and a beauty to it evocative of an M.C. Escher drawing.

But human brains … well, they’re feature incomplete. You see, human brains are self-contained. They can’t read other human brains and see what information is embedded therein.

We can’t read minds.

This is a problem, especially if humans have to work with other humans to accomplish tasks. This “teamwork,” as it is known in the literature, is pervasive. A consultant might say that lack of mind-reading capacity severely impedes teamwork efficacy.

How to conquer this challenge?

There’s one simple trick that obviates the need to read minds.

Listening.

Listening grants insight into another’s mind.

The art of listening is quick to learn and hard to master. It requires self-mastery, humility, and openness. We’re so often taught that we should leap ahead, go faster, solve all the things… but listening counsels careful steps, a slow and steady pace, and a careful consideration of each challenge in turn. This does not always come easily.

But it is vital.

Throughout my two years of business school, thanks to a wide variety and large quantity of group projects featuring diverse, wonderful teams, I had many opportunities to learn — and practice — how to listen. I took these to heart and am incredibly grateful for the experience.

I am far from a perfect listener now, but I’m better than I was two years ago. I still catch myself sometimes, racing ahead in thought, but then I tell myself to slow down, to wait, and to listen.

It’s like mind-reading, but cooler.