Rule 9: Assume That The Person You Are Listening To Might Know Something You Don’t

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "12 Rules for Life" by Jordan Peterson. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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In 12 Rules for Life, Rule #9 is “Assume That The Person You Are Listening To Might Know Something You Don’t.” What does this mean? How should you behave so that you believe the other person knows something you don’t?

In essence, Jordan Peterson’s Rule 9 instructs you to go into every conversation believing that you have something to learn. Let the other person talk. Don’t just spend your time waiting to respond – actually listen.

We’ll cover 12 Rules for Life‘s Rule 9 in much more detail below.

Overview of Jordan Peterson’s Rule 9

We’ve all been in situations where someone seems to be talking endlessly, and we’re tempted to disengage. 

But take a more generous view of the situation. According to 12 Rules for Life‘s Rule 9, people talk because this is how they think. They explore past events, discover how they feel about it, simulate the world, and plan how to act in it. They can figure out what stupid things they shouldn’t do, then not do them. They formulate the problem they are struggling with, before designing a solution. You’re doing them a favor by listening.

Some people are capable of thinking alone and have internal conversations with themselves. This is more difficult than talking out loud with another person – it requires you to model other points of view (in effect being multiple people at the same time), have the models disagree, and resolve the disagreement. This is demanding, requiring you to tolerate conflict and adjust your perceptions of the world internally. 

Thus, many people prefer to talk to a listener. They organize their brains with conversation. 

Thus rises the classic stereotype in how men and women treat conversation differently. According to 12 Rules for Life‘s Rule 9, women want to converse as a mode of thinking, going over their day and struggles they’ve faced. In response, men want to design efficient solutions and move on. Rushing this process robs the speaker of their ability to think, and it signals that you dismiss the importance of what the speaker has to say. Instead, the speaker feels a need to formulate the problem in conversation. They need to be listened to and questioned to ensure clarity in the formulation. Only then is there a problem that is solvable.

As a listener, you are helping the other person think. True listening is paying attention and accepting what the person has to say. 

  • Sometimes, you don’t really have to say anything – the person solves her own problem merely by speaking aloud. Just by giving sympathetic responses, you signal that you value the speaker, that her experiences are important and deserving of consideration. 
  • Other times, you serve as the voice of common reason, helping ground the person and revealing what the other person is ignoring. 

In effect, we stay sane by talking to other people. People who listen and engage in conversation help us figure out our problems. 

  • (In connection with Rule 5 about parenting, Peterson argues this is why parents have an ethical obligation to raise their children to be socially acceptable – a child who is rejected by society reduces willing conversation partners, which can lead to madness.)

If you listen without premature judgment, people will tend to trust you and tell you everything they’re thinking. 

Listening Can Teach You Valuable Things

Listening to someone else can often be helpful in improving your own life. It’s far better to learn from another person’s experiences and mistakes than to suffer them yourself. 

Therefore, approach each conversation with the belief that your current knowledge is imperfect. After all, if your life isn’t perfect right now, this must be true – you must not have all the answers.

Therefore, go into every conversation with the idea that you have something to learn from this, that the other person’s experiences are valuable. Without genuinely believing this, you will find it difficult to carry a fulfilling conversation. This is Jordan Peterson’s listening technique.

(Shortform note: this is why conversations with certain people can always feel frustrating – neither party believes they can learn anything from the other, so it’s just two people trying to talk over each other.)

How to Listen Well

According to 12 Rules for Life‘s Rule 9, the best conversations occur when all parties are listening to each other, trying to solve a problem together, and build to a synthesis greater than what each person started out with. All act with the premise that they have something to learn. This constitutes active philosophy. Everyone leaves with an improved worldview and better knowledge of their conversation partners.

As a comparison, these are common examples of poor listening that lead to lack of connection and synthesis:

  • Trying to jockey for status in the social hierarchy – a game of oneupsmanship in telling a better story, appearing to have a better life.
  • Monologues enforcing one’s viewpoint without opening paths for replies. These are often meant to shut off thinking in the listener.
  • Absentmindedly thinking about what to say next, rather than addressing what is being said
  • Stubbornly disregarding what is being said, out of fear of changing your opinion

Sound familiar? We all do this at one point or another, often to great discontent.

Here is Jordan Peterson’s most effective listening technique: summarize the person’s message. Say something like, “let me make sure I have this right – what I’m hearing is ______.” This has very helpful effects:

  • You take the time to genuinely understand what is being said, rather than skirting over it on the surface.
  • You give the person a chance to correct what you said, or emphasize something you didn’t. This improves your understanding of the other person.
  • You extract the moral of the story, discarding the meandering paths that are a natural consequence of thinking aloud. This forms a successful, lightweight memory for the listener.
  • You avoid strawman arguments. Normally you might pick up a single element and distort it to absurdity. This is obviously counterproductive. If you understand the core of what is being said, you will more likely find the value in it.
  • You strengthen your arguments further against challenge. By stating your opponent’s viewpoint better than she can, you build a steelman (as opposed to a strongman). If you can successfully defeat the steelman, you can develop even stronger, more well-reasoned beliefs.

Assume that your conversational partner has reached careful, thoughtful conclusions based on her own valid experiences. Assume that they want to engage with you as a voice of reason, not oppress you. Reflect their viewpoints back to them, and only then share your own viewpoint.

Other Tips for Conversations

12 Rules for Life‘s Rule 9 has more tips on listening and conversations.

A tip for resolving arguments: When you argue with someone and reach a dead end, take time to separate and sit alone. Each person should think, “What have I done to contribute to what we’re arguing about? I made a mistake somewhere, even if it’s small or far away.” Then when you get back together, admit your mistakes.

Good lectures are actually conversations that happen to be given to many individuals at once. As a public speaker, you should talk with individuals. Make eye contact with a specific person, note her confusion or acceptance, and modify your conversation accordingly. Then switch to another audience member.

Rule 9: Assume That The Person You Are Listening To Might Know Something You Don’t

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Allen Cheng

Allen Cheng is the founder of Shortform. He has a passion for non-fiction books (having read 200+ and counting) and is on a mission to make the world's best ideas more accessible to everyone. He reads broadly, covering a wide range of subjects including finance, management, health, and society. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and attended medical training at the MD/PhD program at Harvard and MIT. Before Shortform, he co-founded PrepScholar, an online education company.

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