Why Affirming in Agreement Stultifies Understanding

I was listening to an informative podcast today called Marketing Jam. The guest was Chris Wagner (a founder of BananaTag), and the host was Darian Kovacs (a marketer and successful podcaster, by all appearances). Darian was asking Chris good questions, and Chris was answering well too. But later in the podcast, one response stood out for me. It wasn’t the content, but rather what the host did while listening to Chris’ response.

Let me be the first to point out that I do this thing much more frequently than Darian. I do it in nearly every conversation, and it’s a habit I’ve developed which I’ve come to regret. It is supposed to be a sign that you are listening to the other person, but it also serves as distraction and confirmation bias.

Here’s what it is, simply: when someone’s saying something, you ‘interrupt’ them in affirmation. You can do this by providing examples, or by speaking on the same lines. For example.

Bob: “What was it like cooking for Gordon Ramsay?”

Joe: “It was an experience! There was the routine stuff that we had to do like peeling potatoes…”

B: “prepping le mirepoix, cutting onions”

J: “… and mopping the floor which he made sure each and every chef in his restaurant did after he hired us. But then during meal time, there was always this looming [stops to think]…”

B: “pressure, presence?”

J: “… dread that we would mess up. If we messed up, Ramsey would get really mad really fricken quickly, and he would yell…”

B: “just like in the TV show!”

J: “… and get mad at us…”

B: “uh huh”

J: “…for fucking up so badly and then verbally harass us for it.”

B: “Wow, it sounds exactly like Hell’s kitchen!”

See what the interviewer is doing here (please forgive my noob dialogue)? While the interviewee is speaking, the interviewer says things to support him, like filling in the words he’s looking for, supplying more examples, and affirming him with general affirming words (“yeah”, “uh huh”).

This is a habit with some bad consequences. There are many reasons for why other people do it, but here’s why I do it.

For one, it shows that I am listening to the other person. If I can say what they’re thinking, then it shows we’re on the same wavelength, right?

Second, I do it out of impatience. Me putting forward the words which you’re looking for has almost always been quicker than waiting for you to find the right word.

Third, and this is a big one, is confirmation bias. One of the things I look for when talking with someone is for knowledge that they have which I could pick up to become a better person. But if I can recognize the other person’s thought pattern, then I instinctually feel like he does not have any new special knowledge. In the dialogue above, I sort of do this above with the “Wow, it sounds exactly like Hell’s kitchen” line.

However, it’s this last reason that leads to the most loss. Recognizing a line of thought is not the same as coming up with it yourself. I may know a lot about (for example) … the things that almost all successful entrepreneurs do on their path to becoming entrepreneurs. But this is different from a priori predicting what exactly a successful entrepreneur did to become one. Or even better, different from going out and actually doing what the other person did.

If you are merely recognizing a line of thought, then you’re not truly learning from it. You’re merely comparing it with what you know already, and if it’s close enough, then you will not consider it new information. But perhaps it is new information!

The key then, is to differentiate. Patterns and similarities can be found everywhere. The challenge is to find the things that stand out and apart, the thing that makes that person unique and thus makes their story interesting. It is here where the learning occurs.

There’s another risk. Perhaps they might actually be saying something different from what you were thinking. Then, by providing examples, you may be putting words in their mouth which they would not agree with or which covers up an issue which they were hoping to avoid, who knows! The point is though that you miss out whenever someone does not use their own words.

The last risk is that you actually don’t listen. Just because you show you listen doesn’t mean you actually are listening. And by listening, I mean the contemplation of what the interviewee has to say, as opposed to the contemplation of your response.

So, and I think this is mostly a message for me, try not to interrupt people with affirmation when they are speaking. Try not to dismiss them when what they say sounds familiar to everything else. And try to figure out what makes them different from the usual story.

One Reply to “Why Affirming in Agreement Stultifies Understanding”

  1. […] an earlier blog post, I wrote that if you fill in the pauses of the person you’re speaking with, you run the risk […]

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