Quick to Hear and Slow to Speak

St. James says in 1:19-20 of his letter,Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God.”

What does he mean? How is it possible for every man to be quick to hear and slow to speak? A conversation needs to have an approximately equal amount of listening and speaking. If each of two conversational partners insists on listening instead of speaking, the conversation will go nowhere. Whenever one is speaking, the other should be listening, and if one is listening, the other must be speaking, since it is not listening if neither of the two is saying anything.

The reference to anger is a clue. St. James is speaking of our natural tendencies, and saying that the natural tendency to anger is excessive and must be resisted. Likewise, we tend to have more of a desire to speak than to listen. We would rather explain our own position than listen to that of another. In order for a conversation to go well, each of the partners should restrain his own desire to express his own opinion, in order to listen to the other. This does not imply anything impossible any more than restraining anger is impossible; people have a naturally excessive desire to express themselves in the same way that they have a naturally excessive tendency to become angry. Thus St. James is not against a conversation which is equally composed of listening and speaking; but he is saying that such a conversation requires restraint on both parties to the conversation. A conversation without such restraint leads to situations where someone thinks, “he’s not listening to me,” which then leads precisely to the anger that St. James is opposing.

Robert Aumann has a paper, “Agreeing to Disagree”, which mathematically demonstrates that people having the same prior probability distribution and following the laws of probability, cannot have a different posterior probability regarding any matter, assuming that their opinions of the matter are common knowledge between them. He begins his paper:

If two people have the same priors, and their posteriors for a given event A are common knowledge, then these posteriors must be equal. This is so even though they may base their posteriors on quite different information. In brief, people with the same priors cannot agree to disagree.

We publish this observation with some diffidence, since once one has the appropriate framework, it is mathematically trivial.

The implication is something like this: one person may believe that there is a 50% chance it will rain tomorrow. Another person, having access to other information, such as having seen the weather channel, thinks that there is a 70% chance of rain. Currently these estimates are not common knowledge. But if the two people converse until they both know each other’s current opinion (which will possibly no longer be 50% and 70%), they must agree on the probability of rain, given that they have the same prior distribution.

There are several reasons why this does not apply to real human beings. First of all, people do not have an actual prior probability distribution; such a distribution means having an estimate of the original probability of every possible statement, and obviously people do not actually have such a thing. So not having a prior distribution at all, they cannot possibly have the same prior distribution.

Second, the theorem presumes that each of the two knows that each of the two is reasonable in exactly the sense required, namely having such a prior and updating on it according to the laws of probability. In real life no one does this, even apart from the fact that they do not have such a prior.

Various extensions of the theorem have been published by others, some of which come closer to having a bearing on real human beings. Possibly I will consider some of these results in the future. Even without such extensions, however, Aumann’s result does have some relationship with real disagreements.

We have all had good conversations and bad conversations when we disagreed with someone, and it is not so difficult to recognize the difference. In the best conversations, we may have actually come to partial or even full agreement, even if not exactly on the original position of either partner. In the worst conversations, neither partner budged, and both concluded that the other was being stubborn and unreasonable. Possibly the conversation descended to the point of anger, insults and attributing bad will to the other. And on the other hand we have also had conversations which were somewhat in the middle between these two extremes.

These facts are related to Aumann’s result because his result is that reasonable conversational partners must end up agreeing, this being understood in a simplified mathematical sense. Because of the simplifications it does not strictly apply to real life, but something like it is also true in real life, and we can see that in our experiences with conversations with others involving disagreements. In other words, basically whenever we get to the point where neither partner will budge, we begin to think that someone is being stubborn and at least somewhat unreasonable.

St. James is explaining how to avoid the bad conversations and have the good conversations. And that is by being “quick to hear.” It is a question of listening to the other. And basically that implies asking the question, “How is this right, in what way is it true?” If someone approaches a conversation with the idea that he is going to prove that the other is wrong, the other will get the impression that he is not being listened to. And this impression, in this case, is basically correct. A person sees what he is saying as true, not as false, so one who does not see how it could be true does not even understand it. If you say something, I do not even understand you, until I see a way that what you are saying could be so. And on the other hand, if I do approach a conversation with the idea of seeing what is true in the position that is in disagreement with mine, the conversation will be far more likely to end up as one of the good conversations, and far more likely to end in agreement.

Often even if a person is wrong in his conclusion, part of that conclusion is correct, and it is important for someone speaking with him to acknowledge the part that is correct before criticizing the part that is wrong. And on the other hand, even if a person’s conclusion is completely wrong, insofar as that is possible, there will always be some evidence for his conclusion. It is important to acknowledge that evidence, rather than simply pointing out the evidence against his conclusion.

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