One of my favorite pieces of ancient wisdom comes from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus:
We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.
Sure, that may not be the real reason we have two ears and one mouth, but it reveals a useful pattern that we see repeated in communication in general.
Communication essentially has two parts: transmission and reception. These will manifest differently depending on the medium, but the general scheme is the same.
- Textual Communication: writing and reading
- Verbal Communication: speaking and listening
- Pictorial communication: displaying and viewing
Simply Put, 2:1 Is Key
If we expand Epictetus’s aphorism into a suggestion for how to more effectively communicate, we get something like the following:
When it comes to communication, you should work hard to receive twice as much as you transmit.
In other words, you should listen twice as much as you speak, read twice as much as you write, and pay twice as much attention as you receive. Let me unpack that last one a bit actually, as it’s a bit complex.
When around others, we can either be looking to get attention, or we can be paying attention to those around us. The difference between the two is just like the difference between talking and listening — though it expands far beyond the realm of verbal communication. It’s about your attitude as a communicator — your purpose for communicating. And a 2:1 ratio helps to remind us that we should be communicating in a way that helps to enrich us, and to build relationships.2