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Guide on the Side vs. Sage on the Stage

A Conversational Anecdote

Whit Rasmussen
Whit Rasmussen
9 min read
Guide on the Side vs. Sage on the Stage

So often in conversation, my mind is stuck in a whirlwind.

What are they really trying to say to me? What should I say back? What should I avoid saying back? How should I adjust my tone to convey the correct message? What response will have the greatest impact? What past experience can I draw upon for this moment? There's a great quote I read about this... if only I could remember the words!  

The effort is so all-encompassing that I regularly miss the majority of the actual conversation. I completely fail to listen. Instead of understanding to be understood, I skip straight to the "be understood" bit.  

In other words, I (we) tend to listen autobiographically, as I've tried to represent in the image below.


Recently when reading the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, I came across a fantastic depiction of this dynamic.

Because we listen autobiographically, we tend to respond in one of four ways.

  • We EVALUATE - we either agree or disagree
  • We PROBE - we ask questions from our own frame of reference
  • We ADVISE - we give counsel based on our own experience
  • We INTERPRET - we try to figure people out, to explain their motives, their behavior, based on our own motives and behavior

These responses are so common that we typically don't realize when we use them.


Consider the following example conversation utilizing "traditional listening" vs. the same conversation utilizing an empathetic approach.

From 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This example is a conversation between a father and his teenage son.

The father's responses are labeled to coincide with the four traditional response categories in bold text above.

"Boy, Dad, I've had it! School is for losers!"

"What's the matter, Son? (PROBING)

"It's totally impractical. I don't get a thing out of it."

"Well, you just can't see the benefits yet, Son. I felt the same way when I was your age. I remember thinking what a waste some of the classes were. But those classes turned out to be the most helpful to me later on. Just hang in there. Give it some time." (ADVISING)

"I've given it ten years of my life! Can you tell me what good 'x plus y' is going to be to me as an auto mechanic?"

"An auto mechanic? You've got to be kidding." (EVALUATING)

"No, I'm not. Look at Joe. He's quit school. He's working on cars. And he's making lots of money. Now that's practical."

"It may look that way now. But several years down the road, Joe's going to wish he'd stayed in school. You don't want to be an auto mechanic. You need an education to prepare you for something better than that." (ADVISING)

"I don't know. Joe's got a pretty good setup."

"Look, Son, have you really tried?" (PROBING, EVALUATING)

"I've been in high school two years now. Sure I've tried. It's just a waste."

"That's a highly respected school, Son. Give them a little credit." (ADVISING, EVALUATING)

"Well, the other guys feel the same way I do."

"Do you realize how many sacrifices your mother and I have made to get you where you are? You can't quit when you've come this far." (EVALUATING)

"I know you've sacrificed, Dad. But it's just not worth it."

"Look, maybe if you spent more time doing your homework and less time in front of TV..." (ADVISING, EVALUATING)

"Look, Dad. It's just no good. Oh... never mind! I don't want to talk about this anyway."


Obviously, the father's intentions were good. He wanted to help and attempted to do so. But did he make an attempt to understand?

Let's consider this same conversation from the Son's perspective this time. His thoughts and feelings are highlighted in (bold italics) below.


"Boy, Dad, I've had it! School is for losers!" (I want to talk with you, to get your attention.)

"What's the matter, Son?" (You're interested, Good!)

"It's totally impractical, I don't get a thing out of it." (I've got a problem with school, and I feel just terrible.)

"Well, you just can't see the benefits yet, Son. I felt the same way when I was your age." (Oh, no! Here comes Chapter three of Dad's autobiography. This isn't what I want to talk about. I don't really care how many miles he had to trudge through the snow to school without any boots. I want to get to the problem.) "I remember thinking what a waste some of the classes were. But those classes turned out to be the most helpful to me later on. Just hang in there. Give it some time" (Time won't solve my problem. I wish I could tell you. I wish I could just spit it out.)

"I've given it ten years of my life! Can you tell me what good 'x plus y' is going to do me as an auto mechanic?."

"An auto mechanic? You've got to be kidding." (He wouldn't like me if I were an auto mechanic. He wouldn't like me if I didn't finish school. I have to justify what I said.)

"No, I'm not. Look at Joe. He's quit school. He's working on cars. And he's making lots of money. Now that's practical."

"It may look that way now. But several years down the road, Joe's going to wish he'd stayed in school." (Oh, boy! Here comes lecture number sixteen on the value of an education.) "You don't want to be an auto mechanic." (How do you know that, Dad? Do you really have any idea what I want?) "You need an education to prepare you for something better than that."

"I don't know. Joe's got a pretty good setup." (He's not a failure. He didn't finish school and he's not a failure.)

"Look, Son, have you really tried?" (We're beating around the bush, Dad. If you'd just listen, I really need to talk to you about something important.)

"I've been in high school two years now. Sure, I've tried. It's just a waste."

"That's a highly respected school, Son. Give them a little credit." (Oh, great. Now we're talking credibility. I wish I could talk about what I want to talk about.)

"Well, the other guys feel the same way I do." (I have some credibility, too. I'm not a moron.)

"Do you realize how many sacrifices your mother and I have made to get you where you are?" (Uh-oh, here comes the guilt trip, Maybe I am a moron. The school's great, Mom and Dad are great, and I'm a moron.) "You can't quit when you've come this far."

"I know you've sacrificed, Dad. But it's just not worth it." (You just don't understand.)

"Look, maybe if you spent more time doing your homework and less time in front of the TV..." (That's not the problem, Dad! That's not it at all! I'll never be able to tell you. I was dumb to try.)

"Look, Dad. It's just no good. Oh... never mind! I don't want to talk about this anyway."


It is not possible to clearly see the world through another person's perspective until we develop a thorough understanding of empathetic listening. There are numerous nuances to effectively practicing empathetic listening, but the key components are quite simple.

  • Authentic desire from the listener to understand the speaker
  • Rephrasing what is said to (1) ensure the listener is understanding the speaker, as well as (2) allow the speaker to further expand upon the topic of discussion
  • Effectively listening (1) clarifies and (2) builds trust at the same time

Every situation is different, but the process is essentially the same.

Consider the same conversation between the father and son - only this time the Father is listening empathetically - actively trying to understand his son. This builds trust and can lead to a win-win outcome for both.


"Boy, Dad, I've had it! School is for losers!" (I want to talk with you, to get your attention.)

"You're really frustrated about school." (That's right! That's how I feel.)

"I sure am. It's totally impractical. I'm not getting a thing out of it."

"You feel like school's not doing you any good." (Let me think - is that what I mean?)

"Well, yeah. I'm just not learning anything that's going to help me. I mean, look at Joe. He's dropped out of school and he's working on cars. He's making money. Now that's practical."

"You feel that Joe really has the right idea." (Well...)

"Well, I guess he does in a way. He's really making money now. But in a few years, I bet he'll probably be ticked off at himself."

"You think Joe's going to feel he made the wrong decision."

"He's got to. Just look at what he's giving up. I mean, if you don't have an education, you just can't make it in this world."

"Education is really important."

"Oh, yeah! I mean, if you don't have a diploma if you can't get jobs or go to college, what are you going to do? You've just got to get an education."

"It's important to your future."

"It is. And... you know what? I'm really worried. Listen, you won't tell Mom, will you?"

"You don't want your mother to find out."

"Well, not really. Oh, I guess you can tell her. She'll probably find out anyway. Look, I took this test today, this reading test. And, Dad, they said I'm reading on a fourth-grade level. Fourth grade! And I'm a junior in high school!"


Before continuing on the conversation, you can already see the positive impact that listening empathetically can have in conversation. Instead of becoming defensive with his father, the son opened up and began to think critically about his words. The father is building trust by allowing the son to come to his own conclusions using his own reasoning.

All the well-meaning advice in the world won't amount to much if we're not even addressing the real problem. We also may never get to the problem in the first place if we are so caught up in our own autobiography, our own paradigms, that we don't take off our glasses long enough to see the world from another point of view.

"I'm going to flunk, Dad. I guess I figure if I'm going to flunk, I might as well quit. But I don't want to quit."

"You feel torn. You're in the middle of a dilemma."

"What do you think I should do, Dad?"


By seeking first to understand, the father has just turned a transactional opportunity into a potentially transformational opportunity. Instead of interacting on a shallow, get-the-job-done, level of communication, he has created a situation in which he has empowered his son to share his thoughts openly and honestly.

The father and son are on the same side of the table looking at the same problem, instead of on opposite sides fighting with each other.


"Well, I can see some things you might want to consider."

"Like what, Dad?"

"Like getting some special help with your reading. Maybe they have some kind of tutoring program over at the tech school."

"I've already checked into that. It takes two nights and all day Saturday. That would take so much time!"

Sensing emotion in that reply, the father moves back to empathy in place of advice.

"That's too much of a price to pay."

"Besides, Dad, I told the sixth graders I'd be their coach."

"You don't want to let them down."

"But I'll tell you this, Dad. If I really thought that tutoring course would help, I'd be down there every night. I'd get someone else to coach those kids."

"You really want the help, but you doubt if the course will make a difference."

"Do you think it would, Dad?"


Now that the son has transitioned from emotion back to logic, it could be a good time for the father to switch back to advice in place of empathy. I really like what the author says here.

Often when people are really given the chance to open up, they unravel their own problems and the solutions become clear to them in the process.
At other times, they really need additional perspective and help. The key is to genuinely seek the welfare of the individual, to listen with empathy, to let the person get to the problem and the solution at his or her own pace and time. Layer upon layer.

...

If you really seek to understand, without hypocrisy and without guile, there will be times when you will be literally stunned with the pure knowledge and understanding that will flow to you from another human being.  

Revisiting my Picasso from earlier... Understanding is only possible once we disregard our autobiographical bias in place of open, empathetic listening.  


Maybe you read that and thought to yourself - How could I possibly pick up on all the small nuances in conversation in order to arrive at the best result.

It's difficult. It requires us to listen, to REALLY LISTEN. Not listen with the intent to respond, but listen with the intent to understand.

These conversations occur all the time...

  • Conversations with your significant other
  • Conversations with your boss
  • Conversations with your friends
  • Conversations with your parents

We can make massive improvements if we pay attention.

I'll close with one of my favorite quotes from Matthew McConaughey -

"We must pay attention so that it can pay us."  

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Whit Rasmussen

Professional Private Equiteer 📈, Dabbling Photographer 📸 & Writer 📝, Obsessive CrossFitter 🏋️‍♂️, One-Time IRONMAN 🥇, Regular Reader 📚, Perpetual Learner 💡, Habitual Optimist 😎