Speed of speech < speed of thought

You could certainly accuse this blog of idealism about listening. In contrast to e-mail, for example, just go and talk to the person. Through listening to their words and observing their body language, you can pick up so much more subtle and complete information: How do they feel about the subject? What are their expectations and how can you adjust your own work in light of those expectations? How important is this to them, anyway?

A post on Medium last week— “What If We Listened as Well as We Read” —challenges that rosy picture. (Thanks to Ken Grady of Seytlines for bringing it to my attention.)

The downside of all that additional information you get from listening is . . . all that additional information you get from listening:

Before they can even open their mouth, we’ve already made up so many theories about who they are and what they’re going to deliver. And before they can even finish their sentence, we’ve already assumed how it will end, and chosen what we will say in response.

I have previously written about some of the cognitive biases that may arise in particular when listening is involved. See Listen Like a Lawyer blog posts here and here and here covering cognitive biases such as the well-known confirmation bias.

Although the Medium post by Rita Hedley does not delve into cognitive biases explicitly, she does point out one major reason listening is so vulnerable to bias. The reason distracting “theories” and assumptions arise, Hedley points out, is the difference in how fast we think and how fast other people can talk:

As humans, we process 125–250 words per minute as they are being communicated to us. But when we think, we form thoughts at 1000–3000 words per minute. So if we’re too busy thinking when someone is talking, chances are we’ve formulated a novel’s worth of ideas about the speaker before they can begin to validate any of it.

 

The differential between the speed of speech and the speed of thought (what we have the capacity to process) at the heart of many complaints about listening. It is the root cause of distraction. (You may have thought the iPhone is the root cause, but the iPhone is merely a vehicle for using the speech/thought differential in more self-gratifying ways than ever before possible.)

To use Daniel Kahneman’s framework, the great difference between the speed of thought and speed of speech is a space where “System 1” can roam. System 1 is the automatic, always-on system and also the one with all the cognitive biases (in lay terms, mental shortcuts). The more thoughtful “System 2” is where you find the careful “thinking slow” of his great book’s title,Thinking, Fast and Slow.

 

Whatever the task, the most effective communicators are able to use the speech/thought differential without detracting from how others perceive their listening. They achieve attentive listening while using their excess thought capacity to do the background work of lawyering. For experienced lawyers drawing on their wealth of expertise, a lawyer is not as likely to be swayed by the distractions Hedley is concerned about. A lawyer with experience in a certain practice area will pay more attention to facts than to how a client presents. And a lawyer who has been burned by incomplete information shared by clients will be slightly more careful even with a client who presents as credibly as George Washington (“I cannot tell a lie.”)

In the Medium post, Hedley suggests that online reading is a less complicated and more positive experience than listening. Part of this comes from the lack of information that would otherwise be supplied by face-to-face listening: Readers don’t have a lot of background information about the writer. They encounter the text in their own voice—the voice in their mind. They curiously anticipate where the text will go.

The suggestion of hearing the text in your mind’s own voice alludes to the idea that reading and thought proceed at the same pace. (Or at least far closer in pace than the ponderously slow rate of speech compared to the speed of thought.) Because there is no differential or less of a differential, perhaps System 1 has less room to work filling in gaps with cognitive biases.

I’m not sure it’s a fair comparison, looking at face-to-face conversation against light internet reading. Obviously conversations are complicated, inspiring numerous posts such as How to Politely Leave a Conversation. Light internet reading makes no similar claim on the person. All you have to do to leave the experience is click away. That act is a tiny data blip in a system of analytics, meaningful only when aggregated with other data and insignificant as an individual decision.

Not so with conversation. It makes a claim on the person; you are involved even if you may not want to be. Part of that claim is to try to see past the possible distortions your mind may be generating. Another part is to manage the speech-thought differential effectively. System 2’s willpower may be necessary for both tasks.

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