In my work as an editor, I often have to deal with a crucial tension. On the one hand, I have to assume that the writer I’m working with has something important to contribute to the world. (Otherwise, why bother editing her?) On the other hand, I can’t afford to assume that anything she says is true. (Otherwise, I’m not doing my job.) Put another way: I have to believe unequivocally in the value of her perspective even as I doubt every word she says.
To navigate this tension, I consciously adopt a particular stance–a specific mode of paying attention–when I’m editing. I call it “listening skeptically,” and I suspect you may find it useful for making sense of the world, even if you’re never an editor. Here’s how it works.
First, Listen Faithfully
Any genuine act of reading or listening requires an initial leap of faith, a willingness to let someone else’s words enter your mind under the guise of presumed truth. You have to start by believing–or at least suspending your disbelief–that the person to whom you’re listening has something valid to say.
As an editor, this can be difficult, when people send you drafts that are sloppy, poorly conceived, or even incoherent. And likewise in everyday life, when people say things that sound downright stupid. It can be hard at such times to remember that a person can have something useful to say–an idea, a perspective, an intended meaning, or even just the kernel of any of these–without knowing how to say it well.
Hard, but necessary. We all realize (or should) that even brilliant people with the best of intentions regularly make mistakes. We should also recognize that even not-so-brilliant, ill-intentioned people are regularly right about at least some of what they see. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be alive.
Based on this recognition, you should start by giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. Suspend your own disbelief long enough to listen carefully to what you hear or read, and try your best to find and respect the other person’s point of view. Then, as long as that point of view isn’t vile, entertain it for a while: take it on a stroll through your imagination; see if it’s a match for any memories you’ve stored.
Just don’t let it wander off. Because before you let it stay, you’re going to turn it inside out.
Next, Doubt Religiously
Giving someone the benefit of the doubt is good. Failing to actively doubt what they say is a cardinal sin against all that is editorially holy. Seriously, every good editor I know subscribes to some version of the NSA’s unofficial motto: “In God we trust; all others we monitor.”
This means that you don’t take anything anyone says purely on faith. You look for additional sources to corroborate–or contradict–their stories. You ask them to clarify any and all confusing points. You insist that they show you the evidence to back up their claims.
None of this means that you have to go negative. Listening skeptically does not require becoming a cynic, much less an enemy to the person to whom you’re listening. On the contrary, if you question constructively, you can help others build their own best arguments. And by poking holes and correcting mistakes, you can help them avoid looking foolish.
Done well, editing is productive, not destructive. Same goes for skeptical listening. The key is to start by questioning the evidence, the assumptions, and the arguments, rather than the person behind them. Until someone has proven themselves untrustworthy, remember that you are just as likely as they are to be mistaken or ill-informed. With that in mind, question carefully but humbly. Seek to learn the truth for yourself, not to prove that someone else doesn’t have it.
Finally, Observe the Reaction
Here’s what you will find: People who actually have something worthwhile to say, and who aren’t intellectual slobs or bullies, will generally be happy to explain themselves. Even if your questioning frustrates them a bit, they will appreciate your effort to fully understand their perspective. They may even thank you for helping them sharpen their ideas.
Meanwhile, people who don’t know what they’re talking about, or who are intellectual slobs or bullies, will either retreat quickly or become angry and belligerent. They may shout at you or question your motives or attempt to change the subject. Their responses will tell you something important about their arguments–and something even more important about them.
Listening skeptically creates an opportunity to learn, both for you and for the person to whom you’re listening. People who see that opportunity as a threat or a waste of time are people you’ll want to avoid if you can. They may still have something to teach you, it’s true. (After all, each person hears the symphony differently.) But they’re loudmouths who don’t stop to listen, people who either don’t care enough to seek the truth or don’t care enough to share it. And that’s reason enough to be skeptical of them as well as their arguments.
In sum: it’s good to open your mind up wide and entertain many people’s ideas. But only let the really good ones stay. Your time and your brain space are limited, and you deserve only the best.