Executive Summary

I am an author who writes about listening. I wish to discuss several ideas that can inspire people on a global scale to understand, respect, and bring out the best in others. 

More specifically, we can:

  • Listen to and learn from others as readily as we perform any other common act of courtesy.
  • Develop understanding and respect for others using our rich life experiences.
  • Disrupt our hidden biases.
  • Expand Can Do attitudes, to Can Understand and Respect, and Can Cooperate and Bring Out the Best in Others.
  • Create a revolution in human communication.
  • Adopt safe driving to help us live and work with others (now and in the future, including animal welfare, technological, and environmental issues) in a manner that saves time, money, and lives.

The goal is to have these ideas tested, and implemented.

Bringing Out The Best In Humanity

If we wish to bring out the best in humanity, we’ll need a plan. It should address attitudes and behaviors. It should be easy to understand, visceral, thoughtful and inspiring. If it can leverage people’s existing, rich experiences, and society’s existing infrastructures, so that it gains relevance and legitimacy, then that’s even better. The benefits to individuals, corporations, and communities should be clear, so the plan can be self-sustaining and long-lasting. It should be an effective, cohesive framework.

I wish to present to you one such possible plan.

Philosophically Speaking

Descartes described individuals, "I think, therefore I am".

But we can extend that to the interpersonal, and the global.

"I listen (love), therefore you are."

"We understand and respect, therefore we are."

“We bring out the best in each other, therefore we thrive.”

Critical thinking is important for individuals. We need to be able to examine our biases, reject conspiracies and extremism, and objectively evaluate the empty promises and lies from advertisers and politicians alike. We need to support media that exposes wrong-doing and dangers. We need media that not only educates but also inspires (which is a whole other article). We need civic engagement and good governance. We need to prevent technological, military, political, or other forms of power from being abused or misused by a small number of people. We need awareness of the risks of any technology, so we can dedicate appropriate resources to address them. Many of these issues require courage and knowledge from the ground up. We need thoughtful individuals, leading to collective action, to be able to deal with the tremendous risks and opportunities humanity faces.

When we listen, we allow others to speak with candor, insight, and dignity. To listen is in a very real sense to lend our hearts and minds to the speaker, so they can think and feel outside their comfort zone, and become and grow as a result. Listening is one of the most practical and common ways we can help others think and feel. It is one of the most effective ways to extend assistance, concern, or love for others. It is one of the most powerful ways for us to resolve problems and cooperate.

Life and work are full of experiences that are worth being heard. When I hear a good joke, I want to tell someone. When I’m frustrated, I want to tell someone. At work, it is also very useful to be able to talk openly about planning and execution, different options to solve a problem, lessons learned after a project or incident, repetitive processes or inefficiencies, etc. It is useful to think things out loud.

If we do not strive to understand and respect others at home, at work, within our communities, and globally (and use that to build consensus, reduce discrimination and inequality, safeguard our future, innovate, etc.), we will always be at risk of conflict and existential threats. 

If we do not understand and respect others, every challenge we face will be harder. If we understand and respect others, every challenge we face will be easier. If we do not learn how to bring out the best in each other, we may never truly thrive.

Can Do Attitude

In addition to an overall mindset, I also wish to discuss attitudes. We admire people who make sacrifices, train, and finally complete a marathon, or learn how to play an instrument. In customer service, we appreciate people who go the extra mile and delight a customer. We hire and promote people who “take initiative”. Having a Can Do attitude means putting aside our fears, doubts, or concerns, doing the work, sometimes making sacrifices, and achieving unexpected results.

When we succeed at one of these “impossible” Can Do tasks, we discover we have more discipline than we realized, are stronger, more flexible, and more capable than we thought. We are more prepared to attempt new tasks that are difficult. We gain humility because we discover how much work it takes to make things look effortless. We grow.

Just as with “Can do”, we must also inspire people to develop “Can understand and respect others”, “Can help and bring out the best in others” attitudes. We must put aside our suspicions and biases against others, learn new interpersonal skills and attitudes, do the necessary work, push ourselves beyond our comfort zones, make sacrifices for the greater good, so we can work together to solve problems or create in unexpected ways. 

After we develop newfound and unexpected understanding and respect for others (without necessarily agreeing with them), we realize we are capable of doing so. We develop the confidence to understand and respect people and ideas, in novel or challenging situations. When we push ourselves to help and bring out the best in others, we realize how much positive influence we can have on others, even in adverse or brand new situations. The more we do these “impossible” activities, the easier it gets. We grow. We built immunity against conspiracies and extremism. We can and should expand our empathy circles, our perspective circles, and our helping and cooperating circles.

Bringing out the best in others is actually part of teamwork, leadership, and customer service. This is obviously of great interest to companies. Making these a standard part of corporate professional development training can help to spread these ideas. Asking how people have made those around them better during hiring and promoting considerations will also reinforce the importance of these ideas.

Bringing out the best in others is more than the golden rule: treating others the way we, or even others, wish to be treated. It is more than deciding how to do the most effective good. It is about improving humanity itself. It is only by deliberately helping others (now and in the future, including animals and the environment) that humanity can push itself to be the best it can be. It is only by doing this intelligently that we can move forward with each successive generation.

Let’s Go Shopping

Bringing out the best in others is actually one part of a larger effort. We have to see ourselves in others (empathy), see the best in others (positive regard), and then we can bring out the best in others. This is taking psychologist Carl Rogers’ ideas outside therapeutic situations. So what are some practical ways for us to develop empathy and positive regard for others?

A few years ago I was at a department store when I overheard a teenager complain to their parent:

“I’ll wear it every day, okay!?”

Clearly, the teenager wanted to buy something and their parent didn’t want to pay for it. But a slightly different situation can also happen. A person can go into a store to buy something. Their spouse might object. In frustration, they might say, “I’ll use it every day, okay!?”

Why are their frustrations so similar? Why is there so much frustration? 

The truth is, we often don’t understand our loved ones. We often don’t appreciate or respect their complex experiences and needs, often developed over long periods of time. As a result, we naturally don’t support their purchases. “You have so many widgets at home already! Why do you need another one?” “Can’t you use the ones you already have?” “You keep cluttering the house with these!”

If we don’t even understand our loved ones, then how can we assume we understand people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, creeds, and persuasions? If we don’t understand others, how can we work together to solve problems?

Fortunately, our complex buying experiences can actually help us. We may buy different things for completely different reasons, but our coveting, browsing, impulse buying, hoarding, and other related experiences are often deeply similar. For example, not having the right shoes when you need them is just as frustrating as not having the right tools when you need them. It takes knowledge and creativity to know what shoes to wear in different situations. It takes knowledge and creativity to know what tools to use in different situations. Some shoes and tools are more general purpose. Some shoes and tools are more specialized, and may be more expensive but less frequently used. Either way, good shoes and tools are hard to find, and you keep them around because you never know when you’ll need them!

Experiences with widgets allow us to understand and respect other people’s experiences with doodads (without anyone having to buy more widgets or doodads, without having to change our behavior). Our rich experiences give us a personal and durable way to see ourselves in others, and to see the best in others. We do not have to build empathy from scratch. In fact, telling people to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes (no pun intended), without giving them any further tools or resources, is like telling someone to buy low and sell high, or diet and exercise, without giving them any further tools and resources. 

Our buying behaviors are a source of tension, but because they are sometimes gender related, they can be a great stepping stone for helping us appreciate deeper gender issues. How and why is women’s fashion different from men’s fashion? How would you feel if people commented on your “pretty shoes” and “pretty hair” since you were a baby? What kind of impact would that have on your buying and other habits? What are some other ways we treat people differently based on gender, and what effects do they have? What if people told you not to cry since you were a child, because they considered that a sign of weakness?

There is a lot of room for us to understand and respect others as groups. In addition, we have to appreciate individuals. You and I may buy the exact same thing at a store, but we likely have different reasons for doing so. The only way to learn about our individual concerns and reasons is to listen to people as individuals.

Using consumer behavior to build understanding and respect is also very business-friendly. It opens up many opportunities for advertising campaigns and public service announcements. Companies can even team up to show things they have in common in unexpected ways. Imagine a running shoe company and a hardware company in the same commercial talking about understanding and respecting others.

Our buying habits, political views, beliefs, values, etc., are not formed in one day. It takes a lifetime for us to become who we are. By spending more time understanding how other people become who they are, we greatly increase our ability to resolve conflicts and cooperate with others.

Disrupting Biases

Working on understanding and respecting others is not enough. We must also find ways to disrupt our biases. Here’s a thought experiment for you to consider.

What if we all had to wear certain t-shirts for a week. The t-shirts could have any one of the following messages on them:

“Police feel threatened by me.”

“People think I’m lazy.”

“People think I’m too emotional and indecisive.”

“People think I’ll always put my family ahead of my career.”

“People think I always leave work on time to pick up my kids.”

“I didn’t graduate from a top school.”

“I don’t belong to the right country club.”

“People associate me with COVID.”

“People think I want to hurt businesses.”

“People think I hate immigrants.”

“I am less worthy.”

Take the first one for example: “Police feel threatened by me.” If I were walking down the street wearing a t-shirt with that message on it, and I saw some police ahead of me, I would feel nervous. I might cross the street to avoid the police. Simply having such a label forced on me, through no fault of my own, causes me to act suspicious, as if I had already done something wrong! If the police saw my shirt and evasive behavior, they might pursue me, and I might start running. A negative stereotype can quickly spiral into disaster.

What about the labels that seem to imply I’m not a good worker? “People think I’m too emotional and indecisive.” “People think I’ll always put my family ahead of my career.” “People think I always leave work on time to pick up my kids.” What if I were forced to wear these t-shirts at a performance review, or a client meeting? What kinds of people tend to get these labels put on them? Is it fair for them to be labeled that way? How much good can be done (now and in the future) if we create more equality for this group of people?

What about the labels: “I didn’t graduate from a top school”, and “I don’t belong to the right country club”? Everyone can be discriminated against in some way. Discrimination harms everyone. 


What if society put the following label on you: “I am less worthy” and forced you to move to a new city with nothing, and your children and their children had to inherit that label as well?

What other labels can you think of?

Again, the “same” kind of discrimination affects people differently. No individual can speak for all people affected by a certain type of discrimination. The only way to discover how discrimination affects a particular individual is to listen to that person.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will." One big problem with discrimination is we often don’t understand the effects of negative stereotypes. If the negative stereotype doesn’t apply to us, we tend to think the associated discrimination doesn’t exist, or we tend to think the negative consequences are exaggerated. 

Telling people not to use racial slurs, not to look down on others, and not to be politically incorrect can backfire. If we give people rules, and fail to illustrate discrimination in a safe and visceral manner, then we may appear to be ordering people to adhere to our seemingly arbitrary standards, and inviting them to resist. We can deepen divisions if we do not explain discrimination properly.

If effective methods for reducing discrimination exist, and organizations fail to adopt those methods, then they don’t reap the benefits of reduced discrimination, but also, they may become legally liable when discrimination occurs within those organizations. 

Good things can happen when we give people a safe and eye-opening way to experience forms of discrimination they are not typically exposed to. We are not born with knowledge of the unfair challenges others face, but we can shine a light on our inevitable blind spots. 

The Long Trajectory of Human History

Improvements to our soft skills can have an extraordinary effect on humanity, but how does it look from a historical perspective? Consider the history of human communication. We went from speech, written language, the printing press, rising literacy, the telegraph, the telephone, to the internet and social media. Each communication revolution has brought far-reaching change to civilization. 

There is a pattern with these changes though. We've become better and better at screaming, "Look at me, listen to me". While Thoreau wrote in 1849 that, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”, today’s technology allows us to live lives of loud desperation. We have democratized publishing (including deceiving, doxxing, cyber bullying, etc.), but not understanding and respecting others. We have not significantly improved our ability to receive others, to appreciate and leverage different perspectives to create the best solutions. A renaissance in communications based on understanding and respecting others can vastly enhance the human potential to flourish.

Literacy allows us to think and feel with limitless sophistication. There seems to be no limit to what engineers, doctors, scientists, musicians, artists, and people can create. But literacy can’t solve every problem. No one would tell an arguing couple to go get remedial reading and writing lessons. Imagine upgrading our soft skills. Imagine recognizing that soft skills were the next logical step in humanity’s evolution. Imagine cooperating with others with more and more sophistication, on larger and larger scales. What heights await us?

Safe Driving

It turns out we have a proven system for inspiring altruistic, cooperative behaviors and attitudes that is already used worldwide. Safe driving allows ordinary people to more safely and efficiently operate fast-moving, powerful machines in close proximity with each other. It is a great system that educates and incentivizes. It establishes norms and culture. It allows small, individual, altruistic and cooperative behaviors to accumulate into much larger benefits for all. 

We can adapt safe driving to help us share our homes, work places, communities, and the planet with others. In addition to can do, can understand and respect, can help and bring out the best in others attitudes, see ourselves in others, and see the best in others skills mentioned above, we can teach everyone to listen (instead of yield), check biases (instead of blind spots), and reject ideological rage (instead of road rage). 

What is yielding? It’s letting someone else go first, regardless of who’s right or wrong. What happens if we all drive aggressively and insist on going first? Chaos and disaster. What is listening? Listening is putting someone else’s speaking, thinking, feeling needs first. What happens if we all aggressively voice our opinions and beliefs and insist on getting what we want? Chaos and disaster. What happens if we listen to (without necessarily agreeing with) others as readily as we yield to others in traffic, or hold doors open for others? We create a more caring, helpful, and ultimately efficient culture.

Driving is frustrating and challenging. But we recognize that aggressive and destructive behavior on the roads is not helpful. And no individual has special rights above others to act out their frustrations. We use the term “Road Rage” to help us discuss and reduce this harmful behavior. Similarly, living and working with others is frustrating and challenging. But getting aggressive and destructive over the discussion of ideas is not helpful. No one has extra permission to engage in “Ideological Rage”. As a society, we have to reject materials that incite and demonize. We have to constantly ask ourselves if the media we’re exposed to is helping us understand, compromise, and solve problems, or just blame and hate.

Safe driving teaches us that we need to recognize the risks and challenges involved in living and working with others, that we have to educate, incentivize, and penalize if appropriate. Safe driving also proves that government, companies, law enforcement, and citizens (yes, a single driver can make a difference) can work together for the common good. It proves that we can change behavior and attitudes. It is familiar to many. It is practical and does not depend on a person’s politics, religion, or values. It can be used to inspire altruism, understanding, and respect on a global scale.

More About Listening

I’d like to share a quick listening tip. If you haven’t learned anything at the end of a conversation or meeting, then you probably haven’t listened. Of course, not every conversation is meaningful. But sometimes value isn’t conveyed or discovered because we fail to be patient and/or we fail to ask good questions that encourage people to speak.

Listening has to be taught in an engaging and meaningful manner. Too many quick articles on the web either make listening appear mechanical and boring by listing a number of listening skills, or they make listening appear vague by talking about paying attention and being present without further details. But listening is rich and dynamic. If my wife told me, “I love you”, I can’t just paraphrase her or stare at her. “Ah, you have amorous feelings for me.” “Uh-ah, go on…” I can’t just be present with her and do nothing either. I have to care first, and use the appropriate techniques and responses to convey my feelings for her. 

We know if our best friend, spouse, or boss is a good listener. We know virtual assistants can hear extremely well, but we can’t confess or pour our hearts out to them. We can’t even have proper conversations with them (at least not yet). We know what it’s like to not be heard. What we don’t typically acknowledge is the sophistication of listening. Think about the many ways people and our devices fail to listen to us. More importantly, think about how we can learn more about listening.

Important Questions

In the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Regan asked the question, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” This simple and compelling question seems to suggest that our economic well-being is the most important election issue. Since then, many have asked the same question during elections, often in an attempt to unseat incumbents during challenging economic times.

I wish to pose two slightly different questions. First, do you understand and respect more people than you did four years ago?

If more and more of us answer, “No”, then it means we’re becoming more and more polarized. It means we’re headed toward more conflict. Divorces, racism, sexism, in addition to political dysfunction, and a host of other problems will likely not improve. 

Understanding and respecting others, in my opinion, is more important than the economy. If we improve the economy without changing the way we feel about and act towards others, it will simply perpetuate, or even exacerbate existing inequalities and problems. If we don’t constantly develop newfound understanding and respect for others, we likely won’t be able to meet new challenges forced upon us by rapid changes in society. Understanding and respecting helps us absorb and maybe even thrive in the face of change. It leads to improved economies, marriages, parenting, teamwork, sales, customer service, leadership, and politics.

Now for the second question. Are you more capable of bringing out the best in others today than you were able to four years ago (because you earn more and give more, because you spend more time doing good work directly, or because you have grown as a person and the quality of your giving has improved)?

If too many of us answer, “No” to this second question, it means we’re not able to inspire a “personal growth via helping” mindset. It also means we’re not able to establish a “helping” culture. To me, this question is a crude but interesting measure of how decent we are as a species.

Traditional and social media can obviously play an important part in changing our culture. In my opinion, too much of news is about how horrible things are. The occasional feel good story doesn’t always inspire me to do good either. People help old ladies cross the street all the time. People also win lotteries all the time. It doesn’t mean I have to go help old ladies or buy a lottery ticket. I believe our media can and should inspire us to create a better world. 

Corporate Support

I’ve already mentioned that companies are inherently interested in fostering understanding and respect amongst their staff, because of the obvious economic benefits. By using our rich consumer behavior to develop understanding and respect for others, we also open up the possibility for commercial endorsements. 

But there are additional areas where companies can make a positive impact. Corporate slogans and mission statements are full of aspirational messages. Companies naturally want to imply their products and services can help you achieve higher human goals. They naturally want to create mindshare, to associate themselves with meaning beyond everyday products that solve everyday problems.

Consider the following altered slogans. Can you identify the original slogans?

“Just listen.” “Just make the effort to understand and respect others.”

“15 minutes of listening can save you from 15 minutes of arguing.”

“You can understand and respect others, we can help.”

“Be all you can be, learn how to understand and respect others.” “Be all you can be, bring out the best in others.”

“Understand, Respect, and Carry On.” “Bring Out the Best in Others, and Carry On.”

In other words, we can invite companies to advertise altruistic messages just by slightly altering their slogans. Companies can gain goodwill and brand recognition by doing this, and our ideas gain exposure.

Importance, Tractability, and Neglectedness

After reading this article, do you think you can use your favorite shopping experiences to learn more about other people’s shopping experiences? With the right analogies and tools, do you think it is possible to use our complex, lived experiences to gain new understanding and respect for other people’s complex experiences?

Did the discussion in this article help you understand forms of discrimination you have never been subjected to? Do you think a deeper understanding of discrimination by more people can help improve attitudes and policies, and lead to more equality in society? 

Do you think the ideas in this article can be eye-opening, perspective changing, and habit changing, for the average person? In other words, do you think these ideas have the potential to change the thoughts and behaviors of many, now, and into the future?

The problems discussed in this article have most likely not received the funding they deserve. More importantly, the approaches outlined here may be novel, might explain the short-comings of previous work, and could lead to new and important results.

What’s Next?

What is needed now are studies from the scientific community. Can empathy, understanding, and respect be fostered using the deep similarities between our various shopping (and other) behaviors? Can repeated expansion of our empathy and helping attitudes alter the way we see our selves, others, our descendants, and the world around us? Can it change our sense of compassion for and unity with others (and concern for the planet)? Can it lead to self-actualization?

Can exposing our hidden biases, giving everyone a relatively safe and neutral way to experience various kinds of negative stereotypes, help people better understand discrimination? Can it lead to more fruitful dialog about discrimination?

Are the results of these interventions meaningful and durable? What are the best ways to conduct them? What are the limitations of these interventions (eg. may be weaker for people without much driving experience or strong consumer habits). Can these exercises then be incorporated into a larger campaign that changes culture and behavior, similar to existing safe driving campaigns, and the results measured?

Conclusion

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” — Albert Einstein

“If we become even slightly more violent, shortsighted, ignorant, and selfish than we are now, almost certainly we will have no future.” — Carl Sagan

We can expand Descartes. Not only must we think clearly, we must also think about others, and think of our common interests as a species.

We can expand Can Do. We can stretch ourselves, to understand and respect others, to bring out the best in others and cooperate with others, in unexpected ways.

We can extend therapeutic ideas into everyday life.

We can use our rich consumer experiences to understand and respect others.

We can disrupt our biases.

We can create a revolution in human communications and interactions.

We already know how to change people’s driving attitudes and behaviors. We can change people’s cooperative attitudes and behavior.

We can appreciate and learn more about listening.

We can ask better questions to inspire positive change.

We can use capitalism to help achieve altruistic goals.

Humans have incredible creativity and resourcefulness, for good and for bad. In the face of ever-increasing change (which always carries risks), we can plod along doing the occasional good, and do our best to recover from the inevitable disasters. Or we can revolutionize the way we understand, respect, and bring out the best in others, and build the best foundation we can for problem-solving, cooperation, and synergy. 

The most profound challenge we can set for ourselves as a species is to bring out the best in ourselves. How far can we go?

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Great article! A practical and feasible plan to better humanity. This is exactly what we need right now.