Selective Business Hearing

We only see what we want to see; we only hear what we want to hear. Our belief system is just like a mirror that only shows us what we believe.~ Miguel Angel Ruiz


We hear only those questions for which we are in a position to find answers. ~Friedrich Nietzsche


You think your job is hard? I have to tell people that their children have  disorders that cannot be cured. I have to crush people's dreams. ~ Vivian Lam

So, there's always perspective.

Several times over the last few years, I've found myself to be the barer of harsh news. Like my wife Vivian, people are paying me to tell them things that they don't want to hear. Things they aren't prepared to hear. And often, things they simply refuse to hear.

Ordinarily, this would be an opportunity for me to bring up a couple of cognitive biases to illustrate why human beings are so adept at not hearing when hearing is painful. However, a perusal of cognitive biases shows that almost all of them play a part.

The fact is, we are hardwired to avoid pain and fear. It's why courage is seen to be a virtue and not merely taken for granted.

Perhaps the true test of bravery is simply engaging System 2 thinking when it's called for.  It's acting coldly logically in the face of overwhelming emotion.

The position of a therapist, whether diagnosing a learning disorder like my wife or a workplace dysfunction like Tonianne and I might do, is precarious. The truth is often startling, but it's also greatly impacted by perspective and - most annoyingly - truth is not a constant. Truth isn't absolute. It's malleable, even fungible.

I've watched people hear what I'm saying, agree fully, and after two or three minutes of talking come around to saying that observation never happened. They agree to the observation, discuss through a political filter, and then deny the observation. It's fascinating to watch.

To show the degree of this, I'll provide a little more detail. Through direct conversations, people working at the company told me they were specifically unhappy or even angry about a recent change. I went to management and said, "People are really angry about this change." The managers said, "yes they are. We've seen that happening. They're really upset." 

Then they had a discussion where the observation was compared to the culture of the company. The culture (the espoused theory) of the company was that everyone had autonomy and could change their environment however they wanted. Therefore, they could not possibly be angry about this change, because they could unchange it whenever they wanted. Therefore no one was really angry.

"… but, … you do realize they are still angry…"

"No, they're not. Or at least they shouldn't be. … What else did you find?"

Both the quotes at the beginning of this post apply. People have built content filters in their heads specifically tuned to avoid confronting that their espoused theories of work are not in line with what's really happening. This is why so many companies have mission statements and values that relate only tangentially to what actually happens in the office. When the truth of people being upset came into contact with the ideology of the company and there was a discrepancy, the ideology won - even though in winning it made itself even more irrelevant. People were still angry, the change still stood, the company still believed it was open and free.

Truth dissipates easily at the touch of ideology.

Photo by Tonianne DeMaria Barry