This morning, 9 July 2013, Malcolm Gladwell’s piece about Listening in Vietnam was broadcast on Radio 4 as part of the Pop-Up Ideas series.
He talked under the banner of anthropology, which he sees as the art of listening. In summary, he tells the story of what two researchers heard from the transcripts of interviews conducted in North Vietnam in the mid-sixties as part of the Viet Cong Motivation and Morale project to understand the effect of the US’s military intervention. And how one person’s ability to be heard over the other shaped Operation Rolling Thunder, and the US’s military policy in Vietnam geared at breaking the will of the North Vietnamese. But, as he points out, “not knowing anything about them… how do you know you are breaking their will if you know nothing about them?”
Gladwell highlights the conclusions Leon Gouré drew from over 60 thousand pages of transcribed interviews of captured Viet Cong prisoners by Vietnamese interviewers working on behalf of the US military. This data was used to draw conclusions that allowed Gouré to brief the US military based on one key, consistent finding: “the Viet Cong were demoralised, they were about to give up” so let’s bomb a bit more.
photo | B-52, Imperial War Museum Duxford – Sabine Jaccaud
Gouré was taken seriously as the only man who understood the mind of this strange and mysterious enemy. By all except Konrad Kellen, who came to the opposite conclusion based on the same transcripts. His rethinking began with one single interview where he understood that the Viet Cong did not think in terms of winning or losing at all and were effectively “an enemy indifferent to the outcome of a battle.”
Gouré’s view of the same data was filtered through his own biases, namely, “it was 1965, the US was the most powerful country in the world, North Vietnam was a spec…” and with that in mind, “he stopped listening.”
We are drawn to this piece for five reasons:
- Insight is in the small stuff. Understanding motivation and morale, or what might also be culture, is key to defining policy and clues are often hidden. Our approach to Ethical Auditing outlines our thinking in this area. We have blogged about the need to work many points of view into shaping sustainable decisions and countering the heroic leader/thinker angle.
- Listening well and fully is difficult. It refuses to jump to early conclusions, and yet also balances “gut feel” with giving time for a position to cook or take shape. We believe that put to work this skill allows for deeper insight based on working from the evidence, not with the evidence. It is at the core of all our consulting work and a lifelong practice.
- Listening well and making sure findings are heard are two very different things. Findings can be difficult, complex, unsettling. Filtered reassurance is not. Effecting change means both hearing the difficult things and knowing how to bring them to the fore, usefully. Or, as Gladwell points out: “listening well is a gift, the ability to hear what someone says and not filter it through your own biases. We have trouble with people who have that gift. We like the fact that what we hear is filtered.”
- Measurability is key. How do you know change is happening, how much, how deep, how fast or slow? Interviews and anecdotal evidence is where we go. It’s about both capturing, and listening or sensemaking, to allude to the work of Dave Snowden at Cognitive Edge. And doing so in a way that removes bias or builds an awareness of a specific bias into the process so it becomes a choice and not a blind spot. Change is about doing things differently and treading new ground, not just applying more of the same methods. More bombs did not shift the Viet Cong’s will.
- Finally, Sparknow’s narrative research methods find their roots in anthropology, most of all through our work with Steph Colton. See our case studies on the Swiss Development Agency and the Islamic Development Bank.
And a thread throughout all of this: there is much at stake. Not just shorter wars or campaigns that hit home, but the impact and unexpected consequences of being heard.
The BBC programme is available here, 2.40 mins in, or here for the transcript. More information on the Viet Cong Motivation and Moral project is available online and this preliminary report is useful texture.