Listening beyond the conversation

If I want to improve, then there is no substitute for objective feedback, and for that I need a recording. It’s critical to listen to conversations with an ear towards improving.

After a long conversation, stop and try to remember what you have just discussed. Don’t be surprised if many things, sometimes even everything you have discussed, were meaningless, empty, and trivial, and sometimes even bad.

~ Leo Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom

Any structure or artifice that I add changes the conversation. (This is a well-known problem in anthropology.) Everyone is affected by a recording being made, by an observer taking notes, by the space chosen for the conversation, and by countless other variables. There are always trade-offs, but there is enormous value in having a recording of a conversation for later review.

I find that if I try to be a completist (about anything) it eventually overwhelms me. So my goal is simply to listen to a recording of a conversation when the mood strikes me. This gives me the experience of hearing some conversations with enough distance to hear them with fresh ears, without overwhelming myself with an insurmountable pile of material to review. Through listening I’m only hoping to discover some new-to-me thoughts; I’m listening for things I hadn’t thought of, or noticed, during the original conversation.

Every conversation is going to be unique, so there are no universal rules or lessons that I can draw from any one conversation. But patterns emerge. Sometimes there’s an obvious place for improvement, or it’s clear that something is missing. Patterns in my selection of guests, my behavior, and the questions I ask become apparent, just as you’d expect. But I can also think about what should be the actual balance of speaking-time, and why do such different balances work in some conversations and not in others.

I expected listening to review to be a lot of added work. It turns out that because conversation is something I’m passionate about, the opportunities for learning, experimenting and changing leap out at me quickly. Often, just noticing something interesting is enough to get me thinking, researching and eventually experimenting.


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