’12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos’ Jordan B Peterson – 9

Rule 9: Assume That the Person You Are Listening To Might Know Something You Don’t.

Psychotherapy is not advice. it is exploration, articulation and strategising. It is conversation and mostly listening. People can be so confused, that their psyches will be ordered and their lives improved by the adoption of any reasonably orderly system of interpretation, says Peterson. But they need to figure it all out for themselves, and the way to do this is to think and talk and simulate the world and plan how they are going to act in it. The Freudian way was for the analyst not to speak and to be out of view of the patient, so that their facial expression could not betray any reaction to what the patient was saying. Peterson practices in a different way, as do most modern clinical psychologists, in that they will look the client in the eye and not hide their reactions to what the client is saying. This gives the client clues about how to gauge themselves and possibly the way they can go about the ordering of their psyche.

This is a chapter about conversation and the different forms that conversation takes. It is a chapter about humility and about listening. Peterson says it took him a long time to understand what the religious injunction to humility meant, and what the word humility means in it’s technical sense, and he concluded it was ‘what you don’t know is more important than what you know’ Then what you don’t know can start to be your friend. People are very defensive about what they know. But you don’t know enough. ‘You can tell that you don’t know enough because your life is not what it could be, and neither is the life of the people around you.’ You just don’t know enough. That means that every time you encounter some evidence that you are ignorant, if someone points it out, you should be happy about that. ‘Maybe I have to sift through a lot of nonsense to get to the message that you’re telling me, but if you can actually tell me some way that I’m wrong, and then maybe give me a hint about how to not be wrong like that, then I wouldn’t have to be wrong like that any more. That would be a good thing, and you can embark on that adventure by listening to people.’ If you listen to people they will tell you amazing things and many of those things ‘are little tools you can put in your toolkit like Batman and you can go out into the world and use those tools and you don’t have to fall blindly into a pit quite as often.’ 

Speaking of Batman, the artwork in the book is by a comic artist called Ethan Van Sciver, and is remarkable for its eye catching detail. Here are some more examples of his work:


The humility element is: ‘do you want to be right, or do you want to be learning?’ And it goes deeper, it’s ‘do you want to be the tyrannical king who’s already got everything figured out, or do you want to be the continually transforming hero – or fool, for that matter – who’s getting better all time?’ That’s actually a choice. It’s better to be the self-transforming fool who’s humble enough to make friends with what he doesn’t know, and to listen when people talk. Listening is a transformative exercise. If you listen to the people in your life they will tell you what’s wrong with them, and how to fix it, and what they want. They can’t even help it, because people are so surprised when you actually listen that they tell you all sorts of things that they never even intended to, things that they don’t even know, and you can work with that.

Now and then you have a very good meaningful conversation with someone and you feel that you really connected and know more than you did when you come away from the conversation. During the conversation you felt engrossed in it. That feeling of being engrossed is the feeling of meaning, which is engendered because you are having a transformative conversation. So your brain produces that feeling that you are in the right place and time. It is a good place to occupy because you register the meaning. It is one of the truisms of clinical psychology. ‘A huge part of clinical psychology is just listening to people. So they come in, and they’re unhappy, and they’d rather not be. And you say “why do you think you might be unhappy?” and they don’t know. They might have some ideas, they may have to ramble around for a year before they figure out why they were unhappy.’ They get rid of a lot of reasons why they thought they were unhappy that were untrue and then you get to the heart of the problem. ‘Then you might ask them “well if you could have what you wanted so that your life would be ok, what would that look like?” and they’d have to ramble around about that because they don’t really know. But the listening will straighten them out’ because people can think by talking and having someone to listen. It is very hard to think, but almost everyone can talk. If you can listen to yourself talk and someone is there, you can note their reactions, which will work as a foil to your thoughts.

The well known clinical psychologist Carl Rogers suggested we paraphrase what someone tells us, and ask if that is correct. That way the person talking to us knows they are understood. So if you are arguing with someone the point is not to win the argument, it is to fix the problem, You need to grapple with what they mean and if you don’t deal with the problem fairly between you it will just keep on coming up again and again.

This chapter is not as dense and satisfying as some others, but still interesting, and it wraps up with Socrates – always a good idea: ‘The Delphic Oracle in ancient Greece spoke most highly of Socrates, who always sought the truth. She described him as the wisest living man, because he knew that what he knew was nothing.’

More tomorrow!