How to understand what other people want

“Produce more, consume less” keeps resonating inside my mind. I often feel tension and anxiety about consuming so much money, knowledge, books, videos, food, advertisement and energy. I cannot help but feel that I do not produce as much as I consume. Surely not in terms of quantity and possibly neither in terms of quality. Is this a balance that we must keep or is it enough to just leverage the imbalance to push ourselves to produce and consume more sustainably?

What do I produce, anyway? I produce software code, mathematical models, comments on other people code and work, reflections, blog articles, decisions, agreements and relationships. Maybe my anxiety is connected with how intangible is what I produce?

How can we compare the value of what we produce with the value of what we consume? One way to do so is monetary, which is an okay proxy but one that requires to leave out many significant parts of our lives. Another way is to consider others’ perception of the value of what we produce. When others get interested in it, we suddenly feel the value of what we produce trumps our consumption. But is it actually valuable to chase the recognition from others that what we do is valuable? In doing so, we would end up doing what others think is valuable. Doing what a small group of people value can be really risky so we better do what a big group of us values, but how big? And how do we understand what many people value?

So here I am, searching on the internet “how do you understand what other people want” with double quotes to force search engines to find exactly an answer to this query. Bear with my seeming digression, but here are some quotes from an interesting blog post I found about negotiations between parents and children.

“Since we established last week that knowing what we want is difficult, you can imagine that knowing what others need or want is even more so” I could not agree more with this. While I might be an outlier (although I suspect not to be), I took me until my 25th birthday to be confident in what I wanted. Also, this is always evolving and needs constant nurture and balancing. Now, it is a natural syllogism that if is it so hard to understand what I want it must be even harder to understand what others want, especially if these others are many.

“So how do you find out? You can ask, and that’s not a bad way to start. But the best tools are simple ones. Observation and careful listening. Notice I didn’t say they were easy. That’s because simple doesn’t always mean easy”. Understanding what others want is simple, yet difficult. Simple because it requires, first and foremost, just a shift in attention. When thinking about others, being few or many, if we really want to have a solid understanding of what they want and value, we need to start from them, rather than focusing on how they affect us. It is obviously difficult because it is a shift in attitude and culture.

Browsing comments in the blog post above, I found a quote from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey: “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood” (principle mo. 5).

In the book, this principle fits in a larger concept that the author calls the maturity continuum. The first step of this continuum involves moving from being dependent to independent, following principles such as being proactive, starting with the end in mind and putting first things first. The next step, involving thinking win-win, seeking first to understand then to be understood and synergising, consists of moving from being independent to be inter-dependent. While from my late teenage-hood until my mid-twenties I worked on being independent, I am only now focusing on this second step and understanding what others value is a key element of it.

This beautifully mirrors the idea of inter-subjective truths. We grow up in a world that pretends to be objective, via social norms and scientific truths, but slowly understand the relevance of the subjective perspective, that everyone has their own and they are all valuable and precious. However, nothing per se is really valuable. Value is inter-intersubjective and is created by people coming together and agreeing on the value of something. Inter-subjectivity and inter-dependency are necessary for value and growth. If dependence thinks “you”, independence thinks “I” and interdependence thinks “us”.

To me, these dynamics seem to be working at multiple levels. They clearly affect individual lives, but they also shape our societies and the evolution of us humans and the planet we live on. Just today, I had the luck to attend a beautiful panel on Rethinking Government and Rethinking the Economy at CogX.

CogX is a festival on AI and Emerging Technology, so it was rather surprising to participate in this passionate debate around global problems. Specifically, two problems were at the centre of everyone’s mind: global inequality and climate change (or sustainable development). Jeffry Sachs, professor at Columbia University, reminded us that we have globally agreed about 17 “valuable” things that we have committed to do in the next decade (namely, the UN 17 Sustainable Development Goals). However, he also reminded us that we are doing very little about it because we are failing to recognise the growing inter-dependency of nations. “None of these goals can be solved at a national level” – he claimed – “and yet we are trying to start a tech cold war with China to ensure another century of American supremacy”.

We know that no single entity is in charge of this planet and that we are all co-responsible for it, but we are surely doing a very bad and exploitative job at managing it, reminded us Kate Raworth. Kate is a prominent exponent of donught economics: a new circular and sustainable economy where produced and consumed resources are constantly reutilised. Responsible consumption and production are not just individual problems but global ones, up to the point of being one of the UN stainable development goals (No. 12).


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