Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, Rule 9: Assume that the Person You’re Listening to Might Know Something You Don’t

For those of us just joining me, I’ve been reading Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Amazon Affiliate link). Peterson’s ninth chapter focuses on the power of listening.

As I’ve said a couple times before, this isn’t a review. I’m just using this post as a way to reflect on what I’ve read and commit it to memory (though readers are more than welcome to use it to pique their interest in the book or compare it to their own findings). A full review should be coming once I finish the book.

Again and again I find myself comparing Peterson’s advice to that of Stephen R. Covey in his Seven Habits of Highly Successful People.

One of the things that Peterson notes of many of his patients is that they are profoundly lonely; this, of course, is not necessarily surprising: people who pursue a clinical psychologist tend to do so only after exhausting all other options (which is a shame, and not universal across cultures and personality types, but I’m going to avoid going too far into my opinion on the importance of having someone trustworthy for counsel).

People, as a consequence of loneliness or otherwise, tend to over-clutter their lives—so much so that Peterson notes that much of what he does to help patients is simply to listen to them and help them get their lives into order.

Of course, this has its limitations, Peterson points out: people can’t necessarily fix their lives just by getting up on time every morning, but it can help them set themselves on the right path (or at least forestall the worst forms of self-destruction).

Peterson points out that memory is not necessarily persistent; we don’t have perfect memories of everything and our senses are not perfect either. As a result, we may miss things, or come to conclusions based on a schema of information we’re using (I’m paraphrasing here and may be deviating from what Peterson says a little) without really considering what the most important information is, and without consideration for buried concerns.

The example he uses is that of a movie: if you watch a movie that is wonderful for the first 90 minutes, then falls apart at the end, you are most likely to remember it for having a bad ending, despite the fact that it successfully entertained you for 90 minutes. “The present can change the past, and the future can change the present.”

One thing that Peterson notes is that child abuse, for instance, is “distressingly common”, but not as common as Freudian interpretations would make it out to be: people can have dysfunctional psyches without having experienced abuse or neglect , and people who suffer abuse are by no means destined to be destroyed by it (though, of course, it doesn’t do them any good in the long run).

The reason why there are false cases, however, is that the brain can create information and draw connections when prompted and it is often people speaking, rather than listening, who create bigger problems than there were originally.

One of the things that Peterson notes is that listening is difficult when one is consumed by an ideology; the desire to conform the world to a neat worldview can be dangerous when that worldview triumphs over truth.

Describing one client, Peterson states:

If I had been the adherent of a left-wing, social-justice ideology, I would have told her the first story. If I had been the adherent of a conservative ideology, I would have told her the second. And her responses after having been told either the first or the second story would have proved to my satisfaction and hers that the story I had told her was true— completely, irrefutably true. And that would have been advice.

The problem with ideologies is that when people don’t listen, they tend to speak. Because speaking is a means of imposing one’s desires on the world (especially if the speaker is also willing to lie, as Peterson talked about in Rule 8), it leads to a scenario where people are going to say whatever makes their goals come closer to fruition.

And, worse, if the person speaking is trusted, it shapes the minds of those around them, causing them to re-interpret information in a way that is dangerous.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing—when the person speaking has listened and knows the truth. But when they are not capable of knowing or don’t care to know, problems arise.

People think they think, but it’s not true. It’s mostly self-criticism that passes for thinking. True thinking is rare— just like true listening. Thinking is listening to yourself. It’s difficult. To think, you have to be at least two people at the same time. Then you have to let those people disagree. Thinking is an internal dialogue between two or more different views of the world.

Learning happens when people think, but people think by constructing hypothetical situations. When someone constructs a situation, it often goes unchallenged: Peterson uses the example of a kid who wants to climb up on the roof of his house to get a better view of the neighborhood.

His sister immediately asks him “What if you fall? What if Dad catches you?”

These things change the thought processes of the kid, and he decides that climbing onto the roof may not be such a good idea after all.

Too rarely do people listen to themselves, but having others listen to you (in the sense of giving critical feedback, not just accepting what you say) improves your ability to visualize, and listening to others does so as well. To really think, however, you need to start doing that process autonomously, with your own sets of information.

Speaking, however, does have a role in thinking: Peterson talks about free association: someone who says something will often proceed to offer up reasons why they have said it, if they are not cut off. Do this for long enough, and people can sometimes solve their own problems—if they are authentic and able to overcome the challenging task of talking to themselves critically.

However, with a listener, you get extra scrutiny, and that helps shape your thoughts.

Peterson remarks at one point that “We outsource the problem of our sanity” meaning that people rely on the responses and guidance of others to self-assess and self-regulate.

If you don’t listen, even when you speak, you’re not going to get that feedback.

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