Listening and reasoning, parts I and II

Listening and reasoning

By Ben Teehankee

Manila Times’ Managing for Society column (March 4 and 12, 2007)

The issues swirling around the NBN-ZTE Senate investigations make for very interesting if not controversial discussions. I can’t attend a meeting in my organization or outside without colleagues stating very strong opinions about the case. Responding to the Church’s call for communal action, I usually start my MBA classes by asking students to share their views on what they know about the case or what they’ve picked up from others or the media.

Having listened to as many views as I can, I’ve observed that, first, these are very complex and emotional issues and, second, people reason very differently. What this means is that quite reasonable people can come to very different conclusions on whether the President should resign and whether the Church should ask for it, whether Lozada was kidnapped, whether protesters should have ever bigger rallies, whether the Senate should end the investigation and throw the matter to the courts, etc.

Because of the complexity of the issues and emotions involved, I find it prudent to listen carefully as claims are made in favor of or against my own viewpoint. Not only can this give me fresh information or insight, I am able to avoid the strained relations that contentious disagreements tend to bring about. A colleague of mine whom I respect a great deal always has something interesting to say about the current issues. While I rarely agree with his conclusions (a fact that always frustrates him), I always assure him that I respect his point of view.

I learn a great deal from people whose views are different from my own, especially when I can muster the discipline to listen instead of arguing. Communication experts refer to the practice of listening to understand (as against listening in order to refute) as empathic listening. This involves capturing the content and feeling of what the speaker is saying, paraphrasing these in one’s own words and saying these to the speaker for confirmation. It’s a more complex generalization of the repeat-back that we do when a person dictates his telephone number to us.

As in the case of phone numbers, empathic listening ensures better understanding between the speaker and the listener. The listener begins to see the issue as the speaker sees it while reserving the option to agree or disagree with the speaker’s view. The resulting empathy between the discussants tends to promote better communication between them.

As the listener begins to understand the speaker’s view, it becomes possible to see the reasoning the latter is using. Reasoning is little more than premises leading to conclusions. Disagreements arise when people have different premises, different facts about the premises or draw conclusions from these premises differently. For example, when I asked a friend what he thought of Atty. Gaite’s “loaning” of money to Lozada, he claimed that it was a bribe from the administration because the amount was quite large and Gaite did not know Lozada previously. So to my friend, generosity to a virtual stranger is highly unlikely. Further, he reasons that since it cannot be generosity, then it must be a bribe.

(Disclosure: I know Atty. Gaite personally, having worked with him as a volunteer for an artists’ cooperative he organized. His wife, Mabel, is my colleague in the faculty. The couple is among the most decent and God-fearing people I know.)


My friend who claims that Atty. Gaite’s offer of P500,000 to Jun Lozada constitutes a bribe is making an inference based on the improbability of financial generosity to a virtual stranger. People often find it easy to make inferences about the behavior of individuals based on their perceptions about people as a whole. While this is a convenient way to reason, care must be taken to realize that this reasoning is not conclusive.

For example, even if I were to believe that most poor people would take advantage of easy money, I couldn’t conclude that it would be impossible for a poor taxi driver to return a large amount of money he has found in his cab. In fact, that taxi drivers do this at all commands great admiration because it IS a rare act. In short, rareness does not equal impossibility. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt merely allows for the possibility that his unusual behavior is above board until we know more about the facts of the matter. I confess that based on my personal acquaintance with Atty. Gaite, my friend and I differ on our appreciation of the facts.

While the reasoning example above refers to a factual “true or false” argument – whether a bribe was given or not – the situation is much more difficult with moral “right or wrong” arguments. Such arguments get more personal because the premises can touch on deeply cherished values and life decisions. In the NBN-ZTE affair, the perplexing thing is that while much of the arguments being made against the Arroyo administration are being couched in moral language, it is not always clear what moral premises are actually involved or how they coherently relate with each other. A case in point is the ongoing debate on the concept of “permissible corruption” which Jun Lozada’s Senate testimony has introduced into public conversation. While the clamor for the “truth” is increasing by the day, there seems to be little concern for the truth that Lozada has also shared: that kickbacks of around 20% are routine in government contracts despite clear laws against them.

When I asked some of my MBA students when corruption may be considered morally permissible, the most commonly given premises were (1) “It will result in a greater good” and (2) “It's financially impossible to avoid it”. These premises amount to moral principles since they are being used to justify corruption.

The first principle is easily recognized as simple utilitarianism. My difficulty with it is that I would need to calculate the effects of my actions on everyone affected by my act which is difficult at best. Also, I would have to think of my act as benevolent and even heroic. The irony is that if everybody found a heroic reason to justify a 20% kickback, I think that the country will be in an even deeper hole than it already is.

The second principle is complex because it uses a claim about money (which everybody needs to survive) as a basis for moral action. It implies that to say “no” to the corrupt act would entail financial and, by implication, even physical suicide. My problem with this premise is that I know people who have made great financial sacrifices while saying “no” to corruption and yet have survived and even thrived.

Listening and reasoning together allows differences in factual claims or moral principles among discussants to surface and be carefully considered. While disagreements may remain, such collective sharing of viewpoints guided by a consistent concern for facts and the moral basis for actions can only help us mature as a people.