Economics used to operate under the belief that people are rational actors. Behavioral economists came along and said that’s crazy—there’s no such thing as a rational actor. People make decisions for all kinds of irrational reasons. It turns out the same thing is true when we listen.
It isn't just that when you call your dad, he ignores what you're trying to say in order to reiterate his opinions. Or that your high school friends shout past you on Facebook whenever politics comes up. No one's exempt. There is no such thing as a rational listener.
But you can train your brain to get better at it. Here's how.
When we listen, we don’t just hear a person’s words, we try and put those words into context. Neuroscientists call this "mentalizing," the ability to understand another person’s internal motivations and desires. When we hear a person’s words, we also try to imagine why they're saying them. And some of us do this more successfully than others.
When someone says something nice to us, we subconsciously ask ourselves whether they're being honest, flattering us to get something they want, or whether they have done something wrong and are protecting themselves. When someone sits on the other side of the room from us, we wonder, "Are they mad at me? Respecting my space? Do I smell?"
Mentalizing is a necessary skill for social animals like us who rely on communicating with one another for survival. So we do it all the time. During the Stone Age, when someone pointed at a source of danger, mentalizing let us know to look where they were pointing and to interpret their scream as cause for alarm.
So today, when anyone says anything, we mentalize. We try and understand their internal motivation and desire. But in a complex and subtle world—which is to say a social one—mentalizing is a lot harder to do accurately.
That doesn’t stop us from doing it, of course. And it helps explain why listening can be such an intense experience.
Take the current election, for example. When a liberal person hears Donald Trump speak, they mentalize and may assume he just wants power, or attention, to drive his business, or to become a tyrant. When a conservative person hears Hillary Clinton speak, they're more likely to assume she's lying, conniving, protecting Wall Street, or saying what the polls told her to say.
It isn't that all of these assumptions are necessarily flat-out wrong, but in both cases the candidates' words are shaded in—a little differently by each listener—by mentalizing. And in both cases, the listeners are sure of their positions, thanks to something called "coherence." It's our tendency to pay attention only to the information that supports the opinions we already hold.
When we mentalize, we don’t listen rationally. And we always mentalize. In everyday life, of course, this manifests in much subtler ways than stark polarization between Trump and Clinton or their respective backers. Usually it's our boss or our subordinate or our coworker—people we know personally and need to work and interact with closely. And when we listen irrationally to the people we work with, that’s a recipe for trouble.
So what can you do to try to listen more like the rational being you fundamentally aren't? There's plenty of advice out there to help you become a better listener, but these three steps can help train you specifically to become a more rational one—because they'll help you mentalize more accurately.
Remember, you mentalize as a matter of instinct. We’re constantly filling in internal motivations and desires, even if we have no idea why someone said something. So keep in mind that the motivations you’re assigning to someone’s words might be wrong—possibly more often than they're right.
The part of the brain that mentalizes, the dorsalmedial prefrontal cortex, is connected to the limbic system, your emotional brain. This means that your ability to predict what motivates another person is colored by how you're feeling. In other words, unless you're a devout Buddhist monk existing in a state of emotional equanimity, you have an unavoidably skewed ability to mentalize.
This can help you understand what your own mentalized frame is. So get a little "meta"—try and name all the ways you feel about this person and how those might color your opinion of what they say: What do you assume about this person’s internal motivations? What do you assume they desire? How do you know these things? How sure are you? Is this something you tend to assume about a lot of people? Try and name all the things you assume but can’t really support with evidence.
Now that you’re at zero and open to the idea that you may be assuming facts not in evidence, go get some facts. Ask questions to find out someone’s actual internal motivations or desires. Be careful not to be passive aggressive by saying things like, "Are you upset with me?" Instead ask exactly what you you want to know: "I noticed you seemed upset. Is it about me?" or, "You were quieter than usual today, is everything okay?"
Think of your role as a detective. You wouldn’t be a very good detective if you just assumed that the butler did it. You have to ask questions.
Don’t forget that mentalizing is shaped by how we feel about ourselves, too. If we have negative self-chatter in our heads, we will tend to mentalize in a way that leads us to imagine people think negatively about us as well. In other words, low self-esteem can actually hamper our ability to communicate and empathize.
So if you have that voice inside that tells you that you suck, you're probably going to create a mental frame that assumes other people also think you suck. And that's one thing you shouldn't listen to.