Mortimer J. Adler
A Touchstone Book by Simon and Schuster
Published Date

I found this book to be an excellent next step after his work “How to Read a Book”, about which I did a paper a few years ago.  This book builds on the earlier work and expands many of the author’s concepts about reading to speaking and listening.  Speaking and listening can occur between two people or you and groups of all sizes.  The art of listening is taken for granted in our society but so much of what we learn about and what we want our patients to learn about comes via the auditory channel.

This book includes many guidelines for improving your abilities in both the areas of listening and speaking.  The following are some of the quotes that I felt were particularly significant:

In the section on the “sales talk” he describes three parts to persuasion – ethos, pathos, and logos.  In the first stage, ethos, you establish your credibility as a speaker.  “You can do it by telling stories about yourself, the effectiveness of which will be heightened if they provoke laughter and the laughter is about you.  You can do it more indirectly by underestimating your credentials to speak about the matter at hand, thus allowing the listeners to dismiss your underestimation as undue modesty.  You can also do it by suggesting your association with others whom you praise for certain qualities that you hope your listeners will also attribute to you.”  This is part of what I have called “establishing the legend of who you are”.  This needs to be done in every situation where you are attempting to persuade another.

In the second step, pathos, you, “arouse the passions of the listeners, getting their emotions running in the direction of the action to be taken.  Pathos is the motivating factor.”  To be effective in the use of pathos you, “must recognize those human desires that they can depend upon as being present and actively motivating forces in almost all human beings – the desire for liberty, for justice, for peace, for pleasure, for worldly goods, for honor, good repute, position, or preference.”  “Persuaders cannot always count on desires that are generally prevalent in their audiences and ready to be brought into play.  Sometimes people have needs or wants that are dormant, needs or wants of which they are not fully aware.  These, persuaders must try to awaken and vitalize.”

In the margin I wrote, “Do you want your child to be better?”  I can recall in particular two instances over the years where the answer to this question was not evident to me.  Having a child with a problem was what was defining these particular parents or families.  It was a rallying point.  The families were being held together by this issue and without it what would these families become?  I cannot recall now if I ever asked the question aloud directly but reading this section of the book definitely reminded me of these two cases.

Logos – the marshalling of reasons – comes last.  “Reasons and arguments may be used to reinforce the drive of the passions, but reasons and arguments will have no force at all unless your listeners are already disposed emotionally to move in the direction that your reason and arguments try to justify.”

In the section on “Uninterrupted Speech” Adler states, “A good lecturer, in short, must have some of the gifts of a good actor.  Each time the curtain goes up, no matter how many times it has gone up before for the lecturer, it should always seem like a new performance for the audience.  Their sense of novelty should be heightened by the sense that the speaker is discovering for the first time the truths he is expounding.  The skill of the lecturer in dramatizing the moments of discovery will draw listeners into the activity of discovering the truths to be learned.”  When I read this, I felt Adler was talking directly to me.  It may be my music background but I certainly see that each time I get up in front of a group, I love the feelings of telling a story and unraveling for them, as if it were the first time, just how I came to see the shred of knowledge about which I am speaking.

Adler continues, “The speaker should be able to make a fairly shrewd guess concerning the general character of the views about the subject chosen that are likely to be prevalent among the listeners. To persuade listeners to change their minds by adopting views contrary to ones they have persistently and, perhaps, obstinately held, it is necessary to undermine their prejudices in a manner that is as firm as it is gentle.  Long-standing prejudices are barriers to persuasion.  They must be removed before positive persuasion can begin.  Removing them opens the mind and renders it receptive to views of a contrary tenor.”  This is so essential in the case presentation.  Find out where your audience is.  What are their mental models?  What do they think can and should be done?  This tells you where you need to begin, by undermining these preconceived beliefs.  Therefore, no two case presentations can ever be exactly the same.

Later on Adler states, “Always risk talking over their heads! By the emotional fervor of your speech, by its physical energy and your manifest bodily involvement with materials that are obviously abstract, you should be able to get them to stretch their minds and reach up for insights they did not have before.”

In a section entitled “With the Mind’s Ear” he states, “Listening is primarily an activity of the mind, not of the ear or the eye.  When the mind is not actively involved in the process, it should be called hearing, not listening; seeing, not reading.”

There is much more in this work about how to listen, how to take notes, and how to communicate in other varied situations.  I highly recommend this book.