Learn to listen for what people mean, not just what they say

Without sounding like internet hyperbole, this super-simple listening trick can help you better understand people's intentions. And provide a fascinating insight into the minds of others.

Todd Davis: Many of my discussions are centered around someone who has a real issue or bone to pick with someone else. And I’ll listen and I’ll listen and I’ll listen because a lot of times people just want to feel understood. But then when they’re finished feeling understood they feel like they’ve had a shoulder to cry on. I will always ask the question, “I wonder why Jim would have said that? Or I wonder why Gail feels that way?” And the person will usually say something like, “Well I have no idea, I’m not Jim.” And I’ll say, “Well no, I understand that. But if I think about Jim I wonder what motivates him?” 

And if I can start a discussion like that more often than not people will say “Well, you know, he was pretty depressed over that issue last year or she got passed over for that promotion so maybe she’s still feeling defensive about that.” And it’s my way of not manipulation at all but helping someone gently but directly start to see things from another’s perspective. And that leads into helping them try to understand what someone’s intent is. And when we can get that type of a conversation going... it’s not always easy... but it becomes easier to start to assume maybe that everyone doesn’t have it out for you or bad intent. But in general people have good intent. 

When people have emotions that are high – whether they’re high because they’re frustrated or whether they’re high because they’re happy – first and foremost they just want to be understood. And we listen, through what the late Dr. Stephen R. Covey used to say, we listen through this autobiographical lens. And then we have this autobiographical response. So we listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. But the most effective people and therefore the most successful influential people they listen with the intent to understand.

So reflective listening, and this is nothing new but boy it’s new to practice it because everybody reads about it, hears about it and yet I see them not model it. And I’ll tell you modeling it is magic. When someone says to me, “Gosh, I can’t believe that they put that policy out. I’m so frustrated with this thing and blah, blah, blah, blah.” I will listen, listen, listen and all I will say and it’s not manipulative, it’s just because I want to understand I’ll say, “It sounds like you’re pretty frustrated with the policy.” “Well yeah, I am because…” and then they’ll go on for five minutes or 20 more minutes. And they’ll finish that and I’ll just comment, “So it seems like it’s really got you considering maybe a change in your career.” I’m making this up. But you do reflective listening, take the time to do it you will start to get to the heart of the real issue. And 90 percent of the time it’s not in this case the policy. It’s something way underneath. And all I had to do was listen and reflect back to the person what I’m hearing them say and what I’m thinking they’re feeling.

There is a time then for clarifying questions. Not probing. Not prying. Not trying to judge or agree or disagree, but saying, “So, am I clear in understanding that you think the policy is wrong because of such and such?” That’s a clarifying question. Or “If I understand you correctly that you believe Joe has taken more vacation than anybody else in the department?” That’s a clarifying question. It’s not you’re agreeing or disagreeing. You’re not prying into or trying to figure somebody out. You’re just trying to clarify and understand. It’s like giving someone psychological air or oxygen if you will. And when we take the time to do that we actually start to resolve things much quicker than if we jump in ahead of it.

People like to talk. And when they talk, they often muddy the water about what they really mean because people tend to speak through an autobiographical lens, i.e., "this is my truth because it is from my perspective". Todd Davis, the Chief People Officer at Franklin Covey, has spent much of his career looking for the meaning in what people are saying, and has developed a way to better understand what people are really talking about. That technique is a small adaption to a basic skill that many people forget to do when they talk: listening, and then asking questions based on finding the truth in their perspective. Just doing that (Todd explains the practice in the video much better than I do here - Ed.) can make a world of difference in interpersonal interaction. Todd's latest book is Get Better: 15 Proven Practices to Build Effective Relationships at Work.

Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think www.youtube.com

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

"Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

"There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

Ancient megalodon shark was even bigger than estimated, finds study

A school lesson leads to more precise measurements of the extinct megalodon shark, one of the largest fish ever.

Credit: Catmando / Adobe Stock.
Surprising Science
  • A new method estimates the ancient megalodon shark was as long as 65 feet.
  • The megalodon was one of the largest fish that ever lived.
  • The new model uses the width of shark teeth to estimate its overall size.
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Golden blood: The rarest blood in the world

We explore the history of blood types and how they are classified to find out what makes the Rh-null type important to science and dangerous for those who live with it.

Abid Katib/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Fewer than 50 people worldwide have 'golden blood' — or Rh-null.
  • Blood is considered Rh-null if it lacks all of the 61 possible antigens in the Rh system.
  • It's also very dangerous to live with this blood type, as so few people have it.
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The power of authority: how easily we do what we’re told

Milgram's experiment is rightly famous, but does it show what we think it does?

Credit: MEHDI FEDOUACH via Getty Images
Mind & Brain
  • In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram was sure that good, law-abiding Americans would never be able to follow orders like the Germans in the Holocaust.
  • His experiments proved him spectacularly wrong. They showed just how many of us are willing to do evil if only we're told to by an authority figure.
  • Yet, parts of the experiment were set up in such a way that we should perhaps conclude something a bit more nuanced.
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