Full text of Krista Tippett: The Art of Generous Listening @ Talks at Google conference
Moderator: Danielle Krettek – Google Empathy Lab
Krista Tippett: Journalist, Author, & Entrepreneur
DANIELLE KRETTEK: Krista Tippett is here with us today, which is just absolutely amazing. I’ll read a little bit about her first. And then we will just dive right into it.
Krista Tippett is a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster, National Humanities medalist, and a New York Times bestselling author. She founded and leads the On Being project, hosts the globally-esteemed “On Being” public radio show and podcast, and curates the Civil Conversations project, an emergent approach to conversation and relationship across the differences of our age.
Her books include, my favorite, “Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living,” and ” Einstein’s God: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit.” And I think, literally, even just with those two titles, you see this beautiful and vast spectrum that Krista covers and that is so kind of perfect for us here at Google — literally, from mystery and spirit to the human spirit to Einstein. It’s just so perfect to have her here in conversation here. We’re so lucky.
And I think, really, we were talking the other evening about what it means to inquire and the idea of asking these questions, these fundamental questions, that get to the essence of what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be human together? And what are the lessons we can learn in this practice with everyone?
So we’ll look at that today. But first, I’ll just share a quick funny little moment, which was, as I was preparing for this — I’ve been listening to Krista for years. A couple of years ago, as I was actually founding the lab, I found myself listening to Krista. I’d discovered her, then rediscovered her in the project.
And every day — it was kind of over a break — I was listening to one a day or even two a day sometimes — her podcast. And what I found is they were so enlivening. And they really helped birth the Empathy Lab. So I feel like I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her. So it’s a treat to have you here.
But what was funny is thinking about preparing for this. And I was like, should I go back and listen to every podcast and find my favorite moments? And then it just would have been this incredible mountain of beauty that I would have clearly fallen under because there was just too much there.
So what was beautiful was actually reflecting on the thing that touches me most about her conversations and these beautiful moments that unfold between her and other people, even across distances — are just, in the moment that you’re listening, what comes alive in you, what echoes in you in the days, weeks, months, years to follow, and how these sparks come alive in us.
So that leads us to this form of listening that — I feel like I really learned to listen, even just in being presence with her before knowing her. And I feel like we’re all so lucky to have her speaking to us about listening today.
And so I’ll just start with one of her quotes that really, I feel, touches the core of what this art is all about, which is:
“Listening is about being actively present. It’s not just about being quiet. I meet others with the life I’ve lived, not just with my questions.”
So let’s welcome Krista with open minds and hearts and, of course, our ears, to share more of her gracious wisdom with us. And of course, we are trying something a little different today with this intimate gathering.
So what we’ll do is, Krista will share a bit. We’ll probably go back and forth. And then we’d love to open it up is a real conversation for all of us to live in together.
So if you have any questions, definitely, listen. Don’t think about them the whole time. But as they rise up in the room, please feel brave and courageous. This is what this moment’s about.
So thank you. And welcome, Krista.
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah. Well, it’s exciting to be here. I love this invitation. I feel like I made too many notes. And so Danielle and I decided — because I really love a conversation. And the more I do this, the longer I live, the more I trust that. And I like being on both sides of it.
So I’ve just said to her, I want her to interrupt me and ask questions. And I really would like to open it up and be in conversation with you.
The request was to talk a little bit about the art of listening. And I’m a person who listens for a living. But one of the things — what you were saying about that experience of listening to the podcast — listening is about presence, which I’m going to say again.
But what’s so fascinating — and you and I talked about this the other night — is that I am usually not in the room. In fact, I’m often halfway across the world from the people I’m in conversation with. And the technology of radio, of podcast – I mean, these are not physical experiences.
But my conversations, because of the topic, and then because the medium allows for this, are very, very intimate. And they’re intimate between me and the person I’m speaking with. And then it’s an intimate experience — the magic of radio — and of course, that’s just the old-fashioned word for podcasting — is that it is profoundly individual and also absolutely communal at the same time.
And there’s also kind of a time shift that goes on. It defies time because, in the moment that you listen, you’re in that room when it happened. And I think of a conversation — what I hope for every conversation I have is that it is an adventure and that something will happen that will surprise both of us and, as a listener, you also are there for that moment of surprise.
So I was thinking a lot about that, actually, as I was thinking about being here. Because we’re talking about human presence. And there is this miracle that it’s absolutely possible with and through and in technology. And I think that what you’re about is figuring out how to amplify that and to explore all the possibilities in that.
So I think of listening as a basic social art. I think of social art and virtues as spiritual technologies. And that is to say, just a tool for the art and craft of living, and for a deepened, more generative — which is a nuanced unproductive, although it can be productive — but a more deepened, generative, higher-quality, human experience.
And the interesting thing — so it is a basic social art. I think it’s something we know how to do or we’ve known how to do, but we’ve actually unlearned. I think that, growing up in this culture, we learn that listening is — or the experience we have, which we internalize to be about what listening is about — is to be quiet while the other person says what they have to say until it’s time for me to say what I have to say.
But actually, listening is not about being quiet. The being quiet is a side-effect. Listening is about being present. And as I just said, interestingly, you can be present online as well.
And so because we’ve unlearned this thing, I think it’s interesting to think about, what are its really basic component parts? For me, listening brings a quality, musters a quality, of generosity. And a spiritual technology is always working in two directions. It’s inner work as much as it’s outer work.
So especially in this world we inhabit now, and with so many things we’re fighting about and so many things we’re fearful about, this is not as easy as it sounds, right? In fact, it’s not very instinctive. To me, a generous listener, a definition of that would be wanting to understand the humanity behind the words of the other — so it’s not just about the words that are going to pass between us — and wanting to bring your own best words and your best ideas into the conversation.
You have to muster also, in yourself, a real curiosity to bring that kind of generosity to bear. And again, this is really a withered muscle.
The thing about curiosity is you can’t actually fake it. And again, whether we’re online or offline, we, at an animal level, when we encounter another human being, absolutely know whether they’re really curious or whether they’re just asking us a question. We know that in our bodies.
So really, even just this basic component of the art of living, of being curious, becomes a spiritual discipline. Or if you don’t like that language, it becomes a muscle that we need to flex and flex so that it again starts to feel like instinct, starts to feel natural.
Listening involves vulnerability. One litmus test about whether you have actually gotten yourself to a curious place that you can ask — whether you go into a room, whether that’s a virtual room or a physical room — is are you willing to be surprised?
And again, we walk into all of our spaces these days so guarded, so clear about what we have to say, what we have to present, what we have to protect, and also so clear about what we think those other people stand for. So to be willing to be surprised is an unnatural move right now.
And then the final piece of this that I want to add is that, actually, in many of the spaces we are currently working with and living in and meeting each other in, it wouldn’t actually be reasonable to ask other people to surprise themselves or surprise us.
So there’s a piece of this — I think that the social art of listening is intimately connected with the virtue of hospitality, another spiritual technology.
One thing I love about hospitality — it’s a gateway to all the other great virtues — compassion or love. It’s much easier. It’s an easier entry point. You don’t actually have to love someone to be hospitable towards them. You don’t have to agree with them to be hospitable towards them. You don’t even have to like them to be hospitable towards them.
But we know, in our analog lives — and I think, maybe, we’re learning in our online lives — that the space you create absolutely limits or expands what is possible that will happen there. There is a difference between creating a space with a welcome and an ethos or just opening the door so that anything can happen.
Something that’s very clear to me that I think a lot about, that it’s fun to say in this room, is that, to me, the digital world is just a new canvas for the old human condition. There’s nothing that happens online that doesn’t have an offline, although, things can absolutely get amplified. It’s the good, the bad, and the ugly.
We’re encountering the trolls. We all walk around with troll-ish places in our psyches. Now they have this public room to run around in, right?
But they’re —
DANIELLE KRETTEK: That’s such a great visual. Just like —
KRISTA TIPPETT: Right? But think about it! Yeah. So this has always been true that the quality of the encounter, of the listening, of the relationship, of the possibility of what can happen between two people — whether they agree with each other or don’t or similar or don’t — is very much affected by creating this space.
And I think there’s just a real need, again, in the physical world as much as in the online world, to create alternative spaces — and I’ll say it again — where it would be reasonable to ask any of us to walk in and bring our best selves and be looking for the good in the other and be willing to surprise ourselves and be truly inviting other people to surprise us.
So I guess the other thing I would want to just mention that I absolutely think of, in terms of a companion to listening, is the art of asking better questions.
In American life, we mostly trade in answers. And we actually mostly trade in competing answers. And a lot of what calls itself a question or presents as a question is actually not questioning. It’s kind of tools or weapons to incite or corner or catch or, at least, entertain.
And this is certainly true in my field of journalism. The question is often about how it makes the journalist look and not really about what it’s going to elicit.
What I want to point out in that spectacle, which we’re all very familiar with, is how powerful a form of words a question is. The way I’ve come to experience it is that questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers rise or fall to the questions they meet.
And in the negative expression of that, which we’re very familiar with from media, it’s almost impossible to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. It’s almost impossible to transcend a combative question.
But the positive side of that is that it’s almost impossible to resist a generous question. And we’ve all had that experience that there is something life-giving about asking a better question.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: Can I ask you —
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah?
DANIELLE KRETTEK: May I ask you a question?
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yes, you may. Yeah.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: I know, right? You’re like, if it’s a good one.
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: Is it generous?
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: So what I’m hearing, as you’re speaking, is there is this sense of an opening that happens when there is a generous presence. There is an opening in the question. There’s an opening in the space between you where things can be put there.
I’m so curious — And you mentioned it the other night with the word — you set an intention before you go in — the listening before the listening. And I’m just curious, how does that work for you? How do you cultivate that opening in yourself, that invitation? Because it is that first step of hospitality is open the door, and come into this space that we can be in together. I’m just so curious.
KRISTA TIPPETT: So when I’m having a conversation or an interview?
DANIELLE KRETTEK: When you’re having a conversation and when you’re figuring out the right questions, the questions that have the opening in them.
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah. Well, I do actually think in terms of hospitality in the work I do. And so I think of the preparation I do for an interview as work of hospitality. Because again, so much is determined about how an encounter is going to go in the initial moments before words are spoken.
So just kind of like setting that table, which is an image of a certain kind of hospitality, but it’s the same idea. When we don’t do that, then the most obvious things about us that we’re all carrying out front right now just define what’s possible.
And so what I’m interested in is how can we — not solve all the problems or make it that we’re — because I really want to be in rooms with people I disagree with and who are different and who I need to learn from and who I know I want to share life with, even if I really don’t understand them — not violent people. But most people aren’t violent. There’s this huge swath in the middle where those fellow humans are there.
So what I want to do is create the space so that the things that we already know are problematic are certainly present. But they don’t define what becomes possible between us. In my interviews — when you just asked me that, intuitively, what comes to mind is, I get excited. I’m just excited about the conversation.
And I want to prepare, because I want them to be able to relax as quickly as possible so that we can really go deep. And one way I do that is by knowing about them, by honoring them, by reading their books if they’ve written books, or knowing what they do. I mean I do a lot of — I will also read other interviews they’ve given.
I would say — so I think of my interview preparation mode as the Vulcan mind-meld mode of interview preparation, you know? My mind, your mind, your thoughts to my thoughts — because my goal in preparing is not that I know what they think as much as how they think.
And again, this works if they’re halfway across the world, and I’m in a studio, and they’re in a studio. That, we all know what this experience is, if you meet someone new, and you know very quickly if you’re going to have to explain yourself, defend yourself, be on guard. And then that’s what your whole body gears up to do. And then that just — then you’re off.
But what I’m aiming for is this other experience we have all also had where you meet somebody, and you just know that they get you. And even when I say that to you right now, my body relaxes, and there is a lot more possibility. And it’s a soft — right?
It’s a soft space in which just more can happen. And I think it’s a more playful adventurous space for the same reason.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: I interrupted you with my question, so —
KRISTA TIPPETT: No, no. I love that.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: So please —
KRISTA TIPPETT: I did want to — one of the things you said to me is that you also wanted to invite me here at Google to just say whatever was on my mind that I would want to say and — to you. And actually, I have a fair number of conversations, not about technology, per se, but about our lives with technology and do think about this a great deal.
And one thing I want to say is that — and I know you all are — we’re now having this kind of reckoning, culturally, with the civilizational effect of the work you do, the work that happens in this industry. And we’ve all created that civilizational effect. We’ve all co-created it. And it’s so new.
And these technologies are so much in their infancy. And I think one of the messages that’s come through so clearly is — with wise people in my conversations — is that we forget that all of this is in its infancy because it is so powerful. And it has so quickly — feels like — taken over our lives.
But there is the opportunity. And the challenge is to shape our lives with technology and the technologies to human purpose. And I’m also aware of — I do think — this is also true in journalism. Culturally, we’re so much more skilled at sophisticated analysis and criticism of what is flawed and failing and destructive and terrifying and catastrophic. We’re really good at that.
And we’re not as sophisticated at seeing and analyzing and working with and, thereby, nurturing what is generative and beautiful and humane. And I think that you — I know you know this. There’s so much that is human and beautiful, humane and generative, in our lives with technology as well.
I would just say one of the things that’s so clear to me in the sphere I’m in is the abundance of poetry that has this whole new life online and how people are making poetry and putting it up there and sharing it.
And I think this is also a civilizational move. I mean, poetry does, in fact, in human societies, rise up when we are in these moments of cultural and political disarray. It does. It’s something we are turning to as our official forms of language and discourse are so broken and failing us so badly.
And it gives us ways to give voice to the best of ourselves. And actually, also, it gives us ways to put questions into the room — and I mean “the room” in a very expansive sense, the public room — that are there for us to live rather than answer or fight about.
And one of those questions, by way of poetry, that I work with a lot is from Elizabeth Alexander, who was the poet of the first Obama administration. And she has this poem, which ends, “Poetry is the human voice. And are we not of interest to each other?”
To me, that is a question that reframes, like, can we get along? Or are you a Republican or a Democrat? That’s a question that could help reframe our grappling with all the things we want to grapple with.
And then I’m sure many of you are aware that Mary Oliver died last week. And I was so privileged to have, I think, the last big interview she gave in 2015 in which, I will share, she smoked the entire time. It’s the only interview I’ve ever had where my producer texted me before I arrived and said, she wants to smoke, are you OK with that? I was like, she never gives interviews. Of course, I’m OK with that.
But it was so perfect. Because —
DANIELLE KRETTEK: And you were in the room for this one?
KRISTA TIPPETT: What?
DANIELLE KRETTEK: It wasn’t remote smoking. It was in the room.
KRISTA TIPPETT: No, we were in the room. It was in my face. And I was privileged. And she was wearing a New England Patriots sweatshirt. And it was just — it made her so much more perfect that she’s so three-dimensional.
Because you know Mary Oliver — her critics think that she’s like poetry-lite, because she writes beautiful things about the natural world. And I think some of the people who love her most put her up on a pedestal and turn her into a saint. And the truth is, if you think about a sophisticated analysis of goodness and beauty, she fled to the woods and started writing poetry because she was living in an abusive household.
And the poet — she spent years, in young adulthood, gathering berries because that’s what she had to eat. And it was that three-dimensionality of her — and that’s what gives her poems about beauty and goodness such heft.
And actually, I took — so here, a question she put out into the world that is now rippling through it again — and it’s one of these transformative questions we can live — tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
And another gift she gave me in that interview was — to just bring this to a close — is the phrase — I like the phrase, generous listening. Mary Oliver used the phrase, convivial listening.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: Hmm — there’s like a bubbling in that.
KRISTA TIPPETT: It’s —
DANIELLE KRETTEK: — that’s really lovely–
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: — being the poetess that she is. I’m glad you brought Mary up. Because actually, when I saw that, I thought immediately of you because I listened to that interview. And the thing that touched me the most in that interview with Mary was how she talked about her poetry being a moving thing — that she would walk to have the poetry coming through her.
And then she’d have to run home and get the — and what I loved about that was just that it was the living the questions. It isn’t the — I sit down, and these things comes to us. And I think something that you were talking about a few minutes ago with journalism — which is the nature of the questions — again, you can go so easily to the places of — the darker spaces, the shadowy spaces because it works.
There’s a lot of edge there to work with. I think design and journalism is very similar, in terms of, there’s a curiosity. It’s funny. You can almost say — search poetry and replace design or art or all these things. It’s all inquiry into that thing at the core of something that you’re going to bring out and make felt and move everything else away.
And when I look at design or journalism, I think about this deep curiosity that rises up into us. And do we want to just look for the problems we want to solve, the itchy seams that drive us crazy or the things that feel like they’re not right? Or is there actually something even deeper than that that’s more unifying than that that is this place of beauty?
And the way you describe beauty is — actually, I don’t want to misquote you right here. So let me make sure that I get this right.
In my notes, I literally have the Hafiz quote on beauty, which is always my touchstone, which is, “The world is hopelessly reeling. Stay close to the sounds that bring you alive.”
And your quote is, “Beauty is that, in the presence of which, we feel more alive.”
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: So this vitality you’re speaking about —
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah. And that’s actually a language of John O’Donohue, who is another poet and theologian and philosopher. And so he was talking — we were actually talking about how a lot of the words that we need the most and love the most also get ruined. And I think that’s true of words like peace and justice and love and kindness. They get on bumper stickers, or they get partisan affiliations.
And so I think sometimes we have to put them to one side, and use them less, and say what we’re saying, and use a universe of words, and not expect those words to do the work for us.
But sometimes we just really have to claim a word and say, no, we’re not going to let this die. We have to resurrect it. And I’m trying to do that with the word “civility.”
But he used the word “beauty.” And I said to him, well, beauty is another one of those words. I said, if you just threw the word “beauty” into many conversations, maybe where my mind would go is to the flawless face on the cover of a magazine, right? And he said, no, no. That’s glamor. And he said, beauty is that, in the presence of which, we feel more alive.
And what you just said about the inquiry — if we’re focused on solving the problems, do we then end up orienting towards the problems? And I don’t think we have to do one or the other. I think we do, to some extent, need to focus on the problems. And it’s also just as serious and robust a question to ask, what do we want to amplify because it is good for us?
DANIELLE KRETTEK: Mm-hm.
KRISTA TIPPETT: Because it speaks to and elicits the best of which our species is capable.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: I think that so much of the conversation — to speak for Google. No, to speak for myself and as part of the community of Google — I think that’s part of what’s so fascinating about this braces phase, awkward adolescent moment we are in with technology right now.
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: You’re right. The power is what has brought us along so far, so fast. But there’s so much more to be done. There’s so much expansion. There’s so much support. There’s so much positivity. It’s easy to focus on the fear part of it because that’s real, and that’s happening, and things must shift.
But there’s so much potential if you focus on, what are the things that we want to expand in people? What are the ways we can support? How can we look, not just at the functional and productive needs, but at the generative, spacious needs of people? How is the whole person welcome?
And I think, what’s so curious and part of why this listening conversation — it’s so wonderful to have everyone in the room here — is we are really trying to go back to these core skills that are so easy to forget with the speed with which we all live and remember, what does it mean to, in our process, open up moments where we have spaces for better listening, where we are practicing some of these skills in a different way, working with the design process so that it’s not the normal way that we make things?
But that we ourselves — more of us is welcome in that room and at the whiteboard — that there is, for the humans on this side and the way that it touches people on the outside, and the way that all circles — what does it mean to work with new models and open spaces in these places that we all create in?
KRISTA TIPPETT: That’s also where — you think about that as an intersection of design and the hospitality virtue, right?
DANIELLE KRETTEK: Mm-mm, absolutely.
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah. I’m very clear that, as much as we are, again, seeing the — well, we’re seeing the dark side of ourselves on this great big canvas. And we’re seeing this very young industry, which — one of the things I’ve learned here — is it’s not really an industry. It’s a bunch of companies competing with each other.
But the world actually needs you all to be an industry. This industry — I spent my 20s in divided Berlin. And I keep thinking about it this out here in Silicon Valley. Because as much as we are riveted by what’s happening in Washington, DC or in London, your company — these companies are the superpowers of this century. And that’s huge.
And we’re all now aware of the perils of that and all the pieces that need to be in place for that to be true and to be good for humanity. But I also see that — every generation, every century has had its life-altering technologies, right?
The railroad changed everything. The telephone changed everything. Electricity changed everything. Fire changed everything. But what is new about our technologies — of course, the pace is different. But I don’t think that’s really it.
Because I think, in other generations, the pace of those things was equally completely disorienting. It is the intimacy. Our technologies are woven into the fabric of our days, into the fabric of our lives. They are shifting the way we make and lead and learn and love. They are woven into the human enterprise.
And what I also see is that these technologies, and the interconnected world and economies they’ve given us, have actually given us the tools, for the first time as a species, to think and act as a species. We are not anywhere living up to that right now. That’s not the picture.
But this is the reality. This is the potential.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: I love that articulation of it. I’ve never heard it quite like that. But indeed, it is — the ability to be interconnected. When you say, woven, it’s interconnected, not just in our humanity, but actually in the way that we are connected. And I think the —
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah. Inside and outside.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: Yes. That inner and outer is so critical. And actually, it’s perfect that you said that. Because there was a moment that you had, that you reflected on in your book, with Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen where you talk about Tikkun olam.
And what’s interesting is, I actually had a moment where I was like, shall I talk about spirituality at Google? And I was like, absolutely, yes. This is the human heart we’re talking about. The language is almost — you can use whatever language you want. The thing that we were speaking about, the thing that breaks all of our hearts, the thing that connects all of us is always the same.
So that is what this is. “But sometime early in the life of the world, something happened to shatter”– you know, this origin myth — “the light of the universe and the countless pieces. They lodged as sparks in every part of creation. Our highest human calling is to help repair the part of the world that we can see and touch.”
And I just immediately thought, what if everything we designed had that beauty and service — and your version of beauty — you and John’s– to it? This idea that we can repair the parts of the world that we see and touch, that is a pretty incredible fabric when we think about what filament is at our fingers here at Google.
What a great mission to organize and organize the world’s information, to light it up and repair it as well. I think that’s where we’re moving.
KRISTA TIPPETT: And you know what else? It’s also, at the one and the same time, it’s audacious and it’s doable. Because that’s the Jewish — the story behind the — it’s called “The Birthday of the World.” And it’s behind the moral commandment to repair the world. And I really love — like, that’s another piece of language that I think is so useful. It’s so much better than “save the world,” which was what the 20th century was about.
And so much damage was done in the name of “saving the world.” And it also made people — it actually alienated people from their sense of agency. But repair the world — and you know, ever since 2016, it’s just — all the images that come to mind about what we have to do in our country — it’s weaving, stitching, it’s all these — mending, repairing.
And the thing is, it’s a big picture. But it’s one relationship at a time. And that’s what she said too. Repair the world is the highest human calling. But you start with what you can see and touch. That’s what you’re called to.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: I just — I love that pragmatism. And also, what I feel like is rising up in the conversation too is this — save the world. It made me think. There is this really beautiful intention we have in the Valley and in technology. How can we solve these audacious human problems — these large-scale massive things? How can we — the intention of that is so beautiful.
The results of that are not always. When you speak about intentionality and hospitality and this whole space that we’ve started to unroll in our conversation, what’s your advice for us with that?
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah, well, that’s all. I’m going to now solve it for you.
But what I will say, I think the intentionality — your question is so good. You know, that’s my highest compliment.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: Aw!
KRISTA TIPPETT: That–
DANIELLE KRETTEK: It is my birthday. And I think that was, officially, the best birthday gift ever.
KRISTA TIPPETT: We all know — we know, in our lives, we know, in the lives of companies and organizations, that intentionality — that the beginning of something — the intentionality that’s embedded in it has this mysterious power to be in the DNA forever. But culturally — and I think, especially in the realm of productivity of every kind, we really privilege the “what” and the “when” questions and not the “how” and the “why.”
And I actually believe that, if we are going to wrap our arms around these big civilizational — these intimate and civilizational challenges we have — and the problem is, as we also know, if you rush to do something — if you rush to a solution, you often waste time. You often end up setting something loose that didn’t have the intentionality that it needed, that you then spend time rolling back and dismantling and solving for.
Which is all by way of saying, it would behoove us now — and I mean, in every aspect of our lives and in everything we do, whatever our work is — because this is a critical moment — to really invest our time, our creativity, our attention, the sophistication we would give to solving a problem to the why and the how of it.
Yeah. And what that means — but that has some trade-offs that are culturally difficult, right? That means you would spend a lot more time on something that doesn’t look like you’re being busy.
So there’s a culture shift that has to happen around this. A language I love that actually comes from spiritual traditions is the language of discernment.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: Mm, mm-hm.
KRISTA TIPPETT: I know these industries you’re in are all about innovation. And we actually have to hoist in that a lot of the massive problems we’re dealing with now are the result of innovations. Like, what we did with food 50 years ago, where we created convenience — do you know what an innovation it was to have food coming out of boxes and cans? Life-changing, amazing — so bad for us — very lucrative — so bad for us.
And then our government policies followed it. Agriculture followed it. All of these things followed it. But now we’re implicated in this massive complex of things around climate and health and economies that we have to take apart and solve for, right?
So innovation is not, in itself, a good. Innovation is not necessarily progress. And so that’s something to ponder. And I think, if you say — if our technologies and our lives with them are in our adolescence, if these super-power companies are also very young — I think that discernment muscle — of course, innovation has been a core value — but in the next stage, asking, will it be good for the world? Will it be good for humanity?
And that’s going to look like wasting time — being discerning.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: You use the word, imagination, a lot to describe that generative, spacious process in the beginning.
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: And I think imagination and discernment go really beautifully together towards that. I must pick up — so you mentioned that civility is a word that means a lot to you now and just talking about these — I love saying that these are civilization-level problems because it includes the humanity and the culture and just all things at once. Please share your definition…
KRISTA TIPPETT: Oh, of civility?
DANIELLE KRETTEK: Yes.
KRISTA TIPPETT: Well, I know it’s a problematic word. And I always add other adjectives. Like, I say, adventurous civility or muscular civility. I think we have to get past the idea that — to me, it’s not — again, what is it not? It’s not being nice, kind, polite, and tame.
Those aren’t big enough qualities to meet this moment. I’m not saying there’s not a place for them. But that’s not what civility is about. I want to say that civility, that the intentionality behind it is this repair of our life together.
I think the questions that have been with humanity and animated humanity and, I think animated us at our best, that are ancient and enduring are, what does it mean to be human? And how do we want to live?
And the third question is, who will we be to each other? And that question, across history, has been optional in many settings. And I think, actually, the technologies you’ve created make that question inextricable now for humans — inextricable from the question of what it means to be human and how we want to live.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: Absolutely.
KRISTA TIPPETT: And civility, in my mind — we’re also — there’s so many different things happening at once, which is part of what makes this moment dizzying. And we’re very focused on what’s going wrong.
But there are so many ways that we’re understanding the fullness of what it means to be human and understanding our bodies and our brains and the interaction between them. And also, in culture — fitfully, imperfectly, too slowly, but — gaining a sense of the fullness of — I think these words like diversity and tolerance are way too small. Inclusion — still, there’s an in-circle.
But I think we’re really moving beyond this. We want the full array of humanity in the room to have its place. We have such a newly robust understanding just of the matter of identity. We are the generation that is redefining gender.
So I think one of the things that happened with the notion of civility was that it was about — like, these phrases — like, we would all get on this same page. Or the thing we do — like, the democratic instinct. Well, you’ve got some people who think that it’s something like, take a vote, and move on.
But these intimate civilizational questions of how we’re going to live, we all have a stake in them. So to me, civility, in this generation, is about knowing that we walk into the room or into the discussion with deep, profound differences that are meaningful and important to us.
And the point is not agreeing. The point is getting into a relationship. The point is coming to know each other. And that thing of opening up what is — not letting those things we disagree on define what is possible between us — opening up a new space where, perhaps, what we have in common are our questions.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: Absolutely. Yeah. And that opening of the space that’s bigger than the differences that allows for all of the questions, all of the voices — something that you were speaking with Pico Iyer about in that recent interview was how he talked about how — what was it? In the institutions of skepticism — he’s gone to all these incredibly decorated universities, which he refers to as the institutions of skepticism.
And he says that we learned how to talk, but not how to listen, how to put ourselves forward, but not how to actually erase ourselves. And so much of that is this — the living of the listening, the living of the questions. If we do that in an artful way, there really is space for all of that.
Whereas, the way currently it works, maybe there isn’t always space for it. Because it feels like there’s not enough space for us, because all of us isn’t there.
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: But this idea of seeking — I think, he also said that everything important he lived — or everything important in his life that he’s learned has come through his heart and not through his mind.
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: And I think that’s something that we, as good souls here at Google, doing what we want to do, good work for the world, there is this tension between the things that we feel and the things that we know, the things we can prove and the things that we intuit.
And I’m just curious, as well in this listening and in the allowing of all things, for this greater sense of civility, how does one navigate that?
KRISTA TIPPETT: Navigate the —
DANIELLE KRETTEK: This —
KRISTA TIPPETT: — heart space?
DANIELLE KRETTEK: Yeah. And I think you do it so beautifully with your work, because you sit in conversation with everyone.
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah. Well, we’re going to have to innovate some new forms for that, right? Because we don’t reward the time or the energy that — yeah, we reward what comes from the mind and not from the heart, unless you can pitch it as something that — and that’s what we do actually.
Because most of it is — all this language we’ve always used about “your gut”– and now, we’ve basically learned that — what they’re calling the biome, the second brain. Like, we’ve actually known that. We knew somewhere.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: Mm — science is catching up.
KRISTA TIPPETT: So I do think science is our companion in being able to make a rational, serious argument about this. But yeah — and so I think, right now, all the structures we have, they’re inadequate. And I mean that in all of our workplaces and all of our institutions, they’re behind on what we’re learning. And actually, they’re behind on how actually the world really works and how change really happens and on the difference between what is innovative and transformative, generatively transformative.
So that’s part of the task. And there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. And I think that that is one of these things where the repair is going to have to be everybody starting very close to home — what you know, what you touch, the immediate people and structures around you. How do you make space for that to be rewarded?
DANIELLE KRETTEK: Mmm, that’s interesting. The idea of how to reward the how and the why.
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: If anybody has a question for Krista —
AUDIENCE: My question is, what is your thought behind always asking someone at the beginning of your podcast: what is something from their childhood that is spiritually important to them?
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah. So I almost always ask some version of the question of, was there a religious or spiritual background to your childhood?
So the truth is that just about everybody has a really interesting story there, whether it’s a story of absence or presence or something that was good or bad.
But the strategic reason I ask it is because of where it plants the question. So again, it’s like, the beginning is everything. If you get the beginning right, you can go places. And if you don’t, you’re always working really hard to get it on the rails.
So what I’ve learned about that place — it’s true of other questions about childhood or origins. So sometimes, if I’m in a particular setting with a theme, I might ask — let’s say, it’s a conversation about compassion or — I don’t know. And I might say, can you remember the very first time that that word meant something to you? Or what is your memory of the earliest understanding of what you think of as compassion now?
The thing about asking somebody a question that takes them — what I don’t want to do is start with — how we present generally — we walk in with our credentials and what we know and what we’ve done. And it’s very chin up. And it’s performative. And that’s what we’re asked to do.
That question, it plants people. It’s not a question that anybody feels defensive about, because I’m not asking you also — and I would never ask somebody — tell me about your spiritual life. Are you religious? That question would be designed to just make everybody uptight, including me.
If you ask somebody that question, it takes them to a very soft searching place in their memory and, therefore, in their body. It’s also, interestingly — as much as we think of religion, culturally, as a matter of convictions and beliefs and answers — it’s a place where beautiful questions reside.
And it’s interesting to me how many people — when they start reflecting on that part of their life, it turns out that there’s some question they asked when they were 4 or 7 or 9 that ended up influencing the rest of their life. Like, some of their life has been some trajectory on the course of that question.
So it’s where to start. And then everything follows from there. If I can invite people to be soft and searching right up front, then we probably are going to stay soft and searching.
AUDIENCE: I used to work for the World Bank as an economist. And you talked about saving the world. And then I moved to Silicon Valley. And here, people have the same intentions. And it seems that the intentionality is right.
And speaking for the World Bank, you wouldn’t believe that. But the same is true. People truly believe in what they are doing as doing good in the world. So if it’s not intentionality, where do we go wrong? Is it that we think its intentionality is right, but it’s really not, and it’s our ego? Or what is it? Where do we go wrong? And how can we fix this — that we start off with good intentions and end up with bad results?
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah. Right. Well, that’s a good question. I mean, intentionality is not everything. I think, then, I would want to come back to this discernment piece. And I do think that — yeah, the question of ego, which is often — and of course, our egos are part of us. It’s not, you get rid of that.
But it resides so intimately with intentionality. And so I think, part of spiritual life — of a cultivated interior life — is to grow in knowing the difference. Because they often do feel like the same thing.
And actually to grow these other muscles around discernment and asking the how and the why question — and the scale of what the World Bank is working with or the scale of what Silicon Valley is working with is tremendous. But I do think that there’s something we’re waking up to a little late about how disconnected our view of the problems and, therefore, the solutions is, right?
And this is something about the post-enlightenment world. We were fascinated with the parts. And then we created this world of parts. So in every discipline, there’s this challenge. In medicine, there’s this challenge. We have specialists for every part of your body. And we didn’t learn how to see the whole and all the interactions. And there’s a corollary to that in everything we do — in the economy, in politics, in social policies.
And so, in some ways — like, this is kind of a civilizational muscle of discernment. We actually have to start to think outside the frames that we inherited and see in a new way.
But another piece of language that’s really important to me now is thinking about having, not just imagination, but moral imagination. And then, again, discernment — there’s no prescription. It’s going to be different in every setting. But I think there are muscles we can build up and also ways we can help hold each other accountable.
AUDIENCE: So in my role here, I serve the manager and leader community. And my intention and goal is to support them, actually, through asking them questions rather than —
KRISTA TIPPETT: Sorry, what community?
AUDIENCE: The community of leaders at Google.
KRISTA TIPPETT: OK.
AUDIENCE: And so I’m always on the lookout for really solid questions. And of course, you’re full of them. Both of you are. And it’s obviously a very difficult time to be a leader here or anywhere.
But I’m seeing leaders struggle with how to listen to questions that are — sometimes, just, they’re so loaded, right? And these leaders don’t have the answers, necessarily. And they’re not necessarily responsible for the causes. And they have their own questions about what’s going on in the struggle.
So my question for you is, what advice — potentially, in the form of some questions — do you have for our leaders for how to listen, respond, be with what’s being asked of them right now?
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah. You’re right. I think, when you talk about loaded questions, then they’re not really questions, right? They’re arguments presented as questions. That just feels like a huge responsibility to answer that question.
I do think that what the world needs leaders in this sphere to be asking is, how will we shape these technologies to human purpose, to be good for us? And if I say, audaciously, that these are the tools — you have created the tools to — whereby we could start to think and act as a species — and we must, if we’re going to tackle something like climate change, just to name one of our big challenges, but perhaps the one that is the ultimate one.
How can that — like, I don’t want to say it as a problem — how to rise to that challenge — take that on as a design question. Disrupt all the compartmentalization. Disrupt all these barriers and walls between all the different disciplines we need to be talking to each other to wrap our arms around some of these big challenges.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: I think, I’d add to that as well — because I just wholeheartedly agree — is we tend to think very fast. And we tend to be very reactive because there’s so much at stake, and it’s all happening right now. And there’s a lot on the — to say the stake thing again — there’s so much on the line.
And really, the listening aspect, the silence aspect, the patience aspect of this, I think, is how do we know — there are things about humanity that will never change. There are the things that are wired inside of us that will always be true. How do we think as slow as we can to the things that never change?
Because that’s where the real responses will come. The fast answers are so challenging and loaded — as loaded as the questions and as dangerous for individuals too. There’s just so much going on in that moment.
When, really, when we stop and think about the way that we are, as people, and the way that we are as people together, and what it means to live in a particular way, that we can all be proud of and that feels like it is about human flourishing and civility and the space that includes all of us. Those are harder questions. Those are feeling questions.
We’re not all necessarily in the practice of that, even personally. Just encouraging and having those conversations here, making space for that, that’s the beginning of all of it.
So I thank you for doing your work and for asking the questions.
KRISTA TIPPETT: Something else I might say is, given that — I don’t think anybody who started any of these companies wanted to be changing human — interwoven into people’s bodies, brains, and psyches, right? That’s not what anybody set out to do. But that’s what’s happened.
A lot of the terrible reckonings we’re having now, even around things that we thought we’d made great progress on socially, like racial dynamics and gender dynamics — 50 years ago, there were beautiful movements, and a lot of laws changed. And we kind of came into the 21st century thinking, we cracked this. We can keep getting better at it, but we basically did this. And we hadn’t.
And one way I analyze that is that we have this idea that, if you know history, it won’t repeat itself. But the truth is, actually, that history always repeats itself until you know yourself. And we changed laws, but we didn’t change ourselves.
And now, again, with science as our companion, we learn about implicit bias. We learn how our brains were hard wires. And we didn’t know how to effect that. The beautiful thing — so it’s terrible to wake up to the fact that we were so much less farther along than we thought.
But the beautiful thing is we actually now know we have knowledge that can be a form of power. And you are working in a sphere that is actively engaging our brains — actively involved in our inner lives as well as our outer lives. So again, I would say, take that as a creative challenge, a generative challenge. And it’s uncomfortable, right? I know. It’s not what anybody wanted. But there it is.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: I’m going to sneak a question in between you and Peter, who will be our last question. One of the things that’s come up a few times here is the poetry, art, the space of the heart, the wisdom traditions. These are things that I think live very much in the spirits of many people that are in all of these places.
What do you think that we all have to learn from those traditions explicitly, not necessarily in our own homes, in the doors of our heart? That’s where it all begins. But what do the wisdom traditions — what do all of these ancient human languages of our souls — what place do they have in this space? How can we invite them in, potentially?
KRISTA TIPPETT: Well, this is the part of the human enterprise where we tried to think about what our soul is and what our heart is and, actually, what the fullness of our human — because these are also the parts of the human enterprise where we are actually honest about how complicated and messy we are.
The technocratic 20th century wanted to think that we could just bracket those things out. And you could check your personal life at the door. And we wouldn’t bring messy things into the public sphere. And it didn’t work that way. And now, all of that — now, we’re in this moment — I think this has something to do also with technology and just how rapidly things have shifted — that everything that we have been thinking was such a rational discipline — our politics, our economics, the data — that these are just the thinnest of veneers over the human drama.
And again, it’s really messy and uncomfortable to say, oh, my god. That’s what we have to do? But I actually think, that, we have to address in order to do all the other work. And these are the parts of the human enterprise where that has been investigated and where, again, spiritual technologies have been developed.
And that’s there for us, whatever — there are these great institutions which came out of that. There’s the history of religion. But that’s not all it is.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: I love how, in your book, you said that it was comforting to you, as you spoke to all of these great scientists and minds to know that everyone is equally as — or basically, that black holes are easy. And humans and the human condition is so perplexing for us.
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah. And astrophysicists will tell you that nothing they’re working with — no black hole is as complex as any living organism, not just human beings.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: I love that.
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: Peter — want to take us home?
PETER: Hi. Thank you so much for sharing and being generous with your wisdom and experience. There’s so much that you said — I’m a disciple of Danielle’s. I focus on, actually, strategy to look at how we can use a lens of empathy and emotional intelligence and behavioral science to help guide, perhaps, a better future.
But on that note, there are things you’re saying, like repair versus save, which I thought was wonderful because it’s an admission that we were responsible. And you have to admit that to participate in the healing. So I think the stuff that you’re giving us, imparting us, is really going to help us.
I wanted to ask, because you have, in your own sense, the mastery of listening and interviewing — and you say you prepare, and you do the ritual of being hospitable and vulnerability — all of these things are very, to your point, dynamics that engender reciprocal vulnerability and generosity.
But when you prepare, you kind of stop the person, right? And so you come, and then you say you’re creating an atmosphere of a safe place. And it’s interesting, because I’m curious about the correlation with things like trust and what you believe engenders trust, and what you believe actually builds rapport. What are the human things that you’ve found that build rapport. Because Google knows stuff about you —
DANIELLE KRETTEK: You’re teasing our next session.
PETER: Yeah. So why aren’t you creepy, essentially? And what makes your art form of rapport-building essential? I’m curious about that.
KRISTA TIPPETT: Oh, that’s so interesting. Well, yeah. I have actually thought about how the internet has changed the work I do. Because actually, when I first started, 15 years ago, I was spending a lot of time in libraries, just public libraries. And honestly, I don’t know how else I was finding things.
So it was possible. But of course, now, it’s just, there’s an abundance of information on anybody, as you say. And I can also find things — which is sometimes fun. Like, I can find things people said 20 years ago that they totally forgot that they said. And that is a really great moment in an interview where you take them to a place in themselves they haven’t been for a while.
Yeah. Why does it not feel like stalking? Because it’s appreciative. It’s appreciative and — it’s such an interesting question. People often say, or sometimes say after our interviews, that it was kind of like I gave them a gift of themselves. Like, I gave them an opportunity to say things they’d never even said to themselves before.
But I do that by knowing so well how they think and honoring that, that then we can start in a really deep place and go from there. I think, maybe, the honoring word is important.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: And that deep place that you hold for them to return to and share and open up themselves — I think that human quality of creating that space, that genuine curiosity, that authentic moment that’s being created out of hospitality, like she said — it would be curious to see what changes when those values come alive in the space with technology.
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: So we will see. That is all of our work to share here today. Thank you so much, Krista.
KRISTA TIPPETT: Thank you so much for having me.
DANIELLE KRETTEK: Thank you, everyone, for coming.
KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah.
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