Episode 18 of the Science of Happiness Podcast by the Greater Good Science Center, featuring Tanzina Vega in conversation with Dacher Keltner.
Dacher Keltner: It is a real honor and a privilege to have Tanzina Vega with us today as our Science of Happiness guinea pig. Tanzina has contributed to CNN, written for The New York Times. She’s an Emmy Award winner and most recently has taken over the host position at The Takeaway. Tanzina, it’s really a delight to have you in the role of guinea pig today.
Tanzina Vega: Thank you. Thank you. Willingly. Yes.
Dacher Keltner: Thank you so much. You chose to as a guinea pig … one of my favorite exercises which is active listening. What was the practice like? What’d you do.
Tanzina Vega: I was supposed to sit down with someone for at least ten minutes and have a conversation with them or they were going to have a conversation with me and I was supposed to listen and not just let things go right over my head but really listen. And some of the ways that you from this exercise are supposed to show listening is by asking questions, being empathetic.
I was with Dana Roberson who is one of our producers and we sat in the studio here and we did not… I didn’t even have notes on a computer. Like it was just on a piece of paper. The time required like everything was, you know no distractions. Very old school which… I actually like paper so I know people think that’s crazy but I like it. And so yeah it was old school and it was I think a way to make sure that we were doing this. So I was very aware, right, of what I was doing in the exercise. It was like, OK I’m going to listen to this story. And of course it’s a great story. So that helped. And I’ll be honest there were times when I
wanted to be like, oh my god. Then what. But wait a minute. You know like I wanted to jump in and I thought no, don’t do that. You’ll mess up the exercise and then Science of Happiness will think you’re a failure.
Dacher Keltner: It’ll crash. We’ll give you a C minus in happiness.
Tanzina Vega: Right. I can’t, I can’t have that on my record.
Dacher Keltner: No. So why did you choose active listening?
Tanzina Vega: Well I do a lot of listening for my job. And I think sometimes I don’t know if it’s if it’s sort of the way my brain works I think I’m a New Yorker, I tend to be thinking about multiple things at the same time, all the time. And especially in news you know we’re constantly pivoting from one thing to the other. And so I think in general even though I use this skill in my day-to-day life in my professional life, how good am I really at listening right? And it was sort of a test to see, well am I really that good at it,right? I mean I can I can ask questions I can have a great conversation but that’s not the same as listening.
Dacher Keltner: Well how so? Because we’ve all encountered people who ask questions in coercive fashion.
Tanzina Vega: So I felt very, very on guard during this interview because I was like OK I’m not going to jump in. I’m not going to say this. And I almost thought that I was maybe too quiet. But I don’t know. You know I was like, OK I’m going to really focus on this and really try not you know didn’t know. No phones coming out. No Twitter.. nothing. You know just this person and this story.
Dacher Keltner: Thank you.
Tanzina Vega: It’s hard. It’s hard.
Dacher: I have to ask you this Tanzina because this is your job. And the active listening practice comes out of this old tradition, kind of the nonviolent communication tradition which is really influential in schools and so forth where you know you paraphrase what people are saying, you ask questions, you use your body and words to express empathy. You don’t give advice which.. was that tough?
Tanzina Vega: You know what? The giving advice part wasn’t. I find unsolicited advice-giving really annoying when it happens to me and so I try to be as mindful as I can unless the person is asking me for advice. I just tend to shut up and not. So that was one of the easier ones for me to do.
Dacher Keltner: What was hard?
Tanzina Vega: I’d say the… just allowing the conversation to happen and not wanting to jump in at times and be like, oh wait a minute but.. You know but what about this and but what about that. You know when someone is telling you about you know they’re trying to do that genealogy history and find you know birth parents and go down roads that we may not want to necessarily feel comfortable going down and then you add race to the equation. I mean it was just fascinating.
Dacher Keltner: It was a revelation. One of the really interesting questions is how this exercise which is really about friendship and dignity and respect in conveying you know your appreciation for the person you’re listening to. What was it like for you to do this exercise?
Tanzina Vega: I think that what we miss… We being Americans, we, you know we just did a segment recently about being overworked. And part of that problem and again I know you guys know this is that it increases your levels of stress. It makes it difficult for you to connect with people. We’re not paying attention. Your brain is firing on ten different cylinders. And you know, everything from your e-mails to text to this to that, and so it makes it so hard for us to focus. And that lack of focus I think also creates a lack of intimacy.
I feel like we’re more connected quote unquote in some ways and we’re so much more disconnected from each other. I think about all these trends in loneliness and everything else, and I just think about, how often is it that we’re able to sit down and really understand somebody and to have moments of vulnerability?
I think about all these trends in loneliness and everything else, and I just think about, how often is it that we’re able to sit down and really understand somebody and to have moments of vulnerability?
And I think having those conversations with people where you’re sharing pretty intimate stuff is something that in the United States I don’t think we value that. I feel like we’re a society that doesn’t want to be very intimate. And yet we’re voyeuristic which are two different things. We love watching reality TV. We love watching people pull their hair and get drunk and fight. But that’s not intimacy. So having that conversation like that with Dana, who I haven’t known for very long either, is vulnerable and it’s intimate. And I miss that. You know I think we could use a lot more of that.
Dacher Keltner: You’re not alone. You know it’s so good to hear you cite loneliness. Vivek Murthy our former surgeon general …it’s his whole mission is to combat loneliness in the United States. Thirty percent of Americans feel it. You know one of the most amazing scientific findings just to make contact with what you’re saying about how much we miss what this practice does which is orient to somebody, look at them. One of my favorite findings on this is there’s just something powerful about looking into somebody’s eyes. So powerful that there’s data showing that when I look at a friend’s eyes or a child’s eyes it activates oxytocin release which is this neuropeptide that is distributed in your brain and your body that helps you take care of people and connect. So it’s a very deep thing we’re missing.
Just the quiet and the tone of voice that you have when you’re listening to Dana and just the softness of the question. So I thought your quiet had a real strength to it. Where did you learn how to listen? Who taught you how to listen?
Tanzina Vega: When I was younger, there was a lot of chaos in the neighborhood that I grew up in. And you know it was very low income and there was a public housing.
And so for me my escape were books. And that was you know it was a very quiet thing to do. So I was always receiving information and I don’t like to put things out until I’ve really processed things. So I like to take stuff in. And so I think it was just a way that I that I am as a person you know. There’s also a part of listening that is empathetic.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah, profoundly.
Tanzina Vega: And I’m a very empathetic person. Especially if you’re telling me something really hard to tell somebody.
Dacher Keltner: So one of my favorite quotes related to active listening is about Abraham Lincoln. And it’s a quote by Thurlow Weed who is a journalist during Lincoln’s era. And he was asked like, what is the genius of this guy, Lincoln is poor and kind of awkward, doesn’t dress as fancy as the other candidates and so forth, kind of high pitched voice. And Weed said it really is about listening. I’ll paraphrase, but he says that Lincoln sees everybody who comes to see him, hears all they have to say, and reads whatever is written to him. So he just was always listening actively. So how are you going to pull this off in your position?
Tanzina Vega: No pressure, no pressure…thanks. One of the most frustrating things as a journalist, most recently during you know after this election was the fact that I don’t think the media was listening. They were hearing it but they weren’t listening. They didn’t take seriously enough a lot of the language that was being used.
I’m glad to see more journalists getting on board with good reporting that doesn’t mean partisan reporting. It means you’re calling this what it is. And so I do read emails. I do read tweets. I do try to engage as much as I can with people and I take this very seriously.
Dacher Keltner: You’re right in the thick of it and I worry so having studied you know my lab studies the class divide which is I think worse than you know at almost any time in American history. You’ve written about stereotype threat and all the racial divides. Sexual harassment you know including in the media which has been rampant, speaks to this gender divide. Do you think listening is part of how we go forward?
Tanzina Vega: Oh absolutely. And I don’t think enough listening happens. I think unfortunately especially to women and especially to women of color, to poor people and the elderly. Who we listen to is often you know who has the most power or who has the most money and usually those two things go hand in hand. And you know women of color have historically not had power or money. In the next couple of decades women of color collectively i.e. black Latina Asian and Native women will be the majority of women in the United States. So someone’s going to have to listen to us. And I hope that people will begin to really listen to us going forward.
Dacher Keltner: We’ve done a lot of research on class and ethnicity and power and consistently women, tend to be more empathetic better listeners. They don’t interrupt as much. You probably heard about that finding about the Supreme Court where men are interrupting women in the Supreme Court. Do you think your upbringing and your class and ethnicity had something to do with…What do you think?
Tanzina Vega: Absolutely. I do think that that is a big part of it. And there’s always this weird dynamic between being… Women I think in general, but Latinas in particular have the stereotypes when you think of them are you’re either not so smart or you’re just this hyper-aggressive you know can’t shut up kind of thing and it’s so… So I think that has a role in in how we feel about communicating.
I think there was also a struggle to understand how much I could say, when I could say it. I think the implicit messages to women, people of color, poor people—and at one point I was all of those things—is that your opinion doesn’t matter. No one really cares what you have to say. And that that’s expressed at different levels even in the professional world. And I think these this is where you have things like micro-aggressions. And it’s not that people might not even be aware of the fact that they’re not listening to you or not taking you seriously but just implicitly they don’t.
And so I think that for me it’s been always tricky. Like I do sometimes tend to interrupt people and I will say that and that is one of my failings which was you know, something that I do think about but it’s also because I’m always trying to figure out when’s the right time to say something or if I get really excited about something you know can I just burst in and say it. But also as I’ve gotten older I’ve said you know what, I do need to claim my space and my voice.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah absolutely. Just that analysis reveals the complexities of power right? That you know just in the simple act of whether you contribute to a conversation or not being from your background imbues that act with such complexity that other people might not think about.
You know one of the things that gives me hope right now not only is looking forward to hearing you host the Takeaway but also the themes that are going to emerge in this listening that you’re engaging in.
Tanzina, what an honor to have you on our show. I can’t wait to see where you take your thinking and the work you’re doing in the world.
Tanzina Vega: Dacher, thank you for inviting me to participate.
Dacher Keltner: We’ll talk more about the benefits of active listening after this short break.
Dacher Keltner: One of the really under-appreciated dimensions to healthy social connections is active listening. And we’re learning that active listening is a hallmark of great leadership, it makes teams smarter. One of my favorite studies that really illuminates the benefits of active listening was carried out by Weger and colleagues.
Harry Weger: We brought undergrad participants to our lab and had them talk to another undergrad in what we call the “get to know you conversation.” But the person the participant talked to was working for us as a confederate and we trained the confederates to respond to the participants in one of three different ways. The first response was to do just that nonverbal part of active listening without saying anything. The second was to have them give advice and then the third was to do the full blown active listening response.
We found that the participants reported feeling the confederate understood them better when they received active listening responses compared to either getting the advice or just the non-verbal cues.
What makes Active Listening different than just paying attention is the verbal response which involves paraphrasing the speaker’s message. You have to put the speaker’s message into your own words to show you understand. So you might say, sounds like you had a great time on your bike ride through Marin yesterday. Versus something like, you went to Marin on your bike.
I mean I don’t think multitasking started with the Millennials. it’s just a habit we get into where we’re interested in the television show and the person sitting next to us wants to talk and we’re just used to paying half-attention to a person rather than making eye contact facing the person. We do that a lot early in relationships. You go on a date and you make eye contact and you’re holding hands with the person and they have your full attention. But somewhere along the line we start to drift away from that. And so John Gottman one of the premier marriage researchers did a study and found that almost none of his couples did active listening naturally.
The good thing about active listening is it kind of gives you a formula. So if that’s not the way you normally listen to someone then you then you have some guidelines to help you.
Feeling understood by another person is a very basic part of feeling accepted and valued as a person and it’s a building block for relationships of all kinds.