It is often said that people do not listen to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. I’m not sure they even do that anymore. Instead, they seem to listen for a word or a phrase they can take out of context and use for whatever happens to be their purpose.
As I write this, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell is speaking. He is saying what he has been saying for some time now – that the Fed is serious about bringing inflation down, and that they believe (incorrectly in my view) that this can be done only by causing Americans to lose their jobs. In the course of this speech on the coming pain in our economy, he mentioned that the pace of rate increases will likely slow, perhaps as soon as the December meeting. That was the only thing the market heard; up we went.
I certainly don’t mind equity markets going up, but this trend in selective listening unfortunately manifests in more nefarious ways. The Wall Street Journal recently published an op-ed by Robin Keller, former head of the U.S. business restructuring and insolvency practice at the law firm of Hogan Lovells (translation – she is a bankruptcy lawyer). Ms. Keller lost her job after participating in a conference call for female employees when the Supreme Court issued its Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
Ms. Keller’s view on the decision differed from that of most of the participants who were willing to speak. From there it got ugly, and according to her account, she was suspended later that day. Ultimately, she was fired and supposedly black-balled from the industry. Not surprisingly to me, she says that several on the call privately supported her right to express her views, yet they would not do so publicly because they feared the mob.
When listening to others we should follow the advice of Ted Lasso and try to be curious and not judgmental. Being curious means asking questions. Like, what really happened? And/or, what was actually said on that call? In the WSJ article we get only one point of view. That doesn’t mean we should question Ms. Keller’s honesty, but we should recognize that we are hearing only her side of the story.
If you are like me, you are willing to believe her story because we have seen so many like it over the last few years. Shortly after reading this article, I listened to an interview with Reed Hastings, the co-CEO of Netflix. He was asked about the “controversial” Dave Chappelle special. For those who don’t know, Chappelle is a comedian who was accused of being anti-transgender because of some of his jokes. I was curious at the time, so I watched the special. I am at a loss for how anyone could watch that entire special and come away thinking that Dave Chappelle is in any way hateful. Not as funny as he once was? That I would understand, but hateful? No. To their credit, Netflix has not canceled the special as the mob has suggested.
People hear what they want to hear. They take one word or line and immediately judge, then others hear that judgement and believe it without question. It is easy to assume this is what happened to Ms. Keller. Unlike a comedy special, the intrafirm conference call can’t be listened to in its entirely, so we will never really know.
I suspect that Ms. Keller will be just fine. I know Mr. Chappelle will be, and I don’t blame investors for not listening to Mr. Powell. None of these stories in isolation is that important, but the fact that all three came across my desk in an hour shows how prevalent our lack of listening has become.
In his classic “The 7 Habits of Effective People,” Stephen Covey says that habit number five is to seek first to understand, then to be understood. In other words: be curious, not judgmental. The world would be a better place if we all took that advice, at least that is my perspective.
Chuck Osborne, CFA