It is a strikingly common and presumably frustrating phenomenon that in course of a conversation, the nature, tone, and apparent meaning of your interlocutor’s response will make you scratch your head and wonder:-
‘What has this got to do with what I am saying?’
‘Of course you are right, but how is this different from what I am saying?’
‘Will you at least let me complete?’
‘Why are you telling me all this?’
The subsequent emergence of a parallel line of engagement that is at best an offshoot of the original subject of discussion often derails the conversation to the extent of eroding its basic essence and becoming directionless, reducing it to a set of discrete statements that are, if at all, only loosely connected.
These experiences that we all both empathise and sympathise with drive us to agree with Stephen Covey’s statement that indeed people listen not with the intent to understand but with the intent to reply.
A useful extension of this viewpoint would be an attempt to understand the nature of these responses and their underpinning rationale.
Consider the following two situations:-
- Person A: ‘ There is raw rice kept in a container for maybe 3-4 years now. I’ m not sure if it is usable…’
Person B:- ‘NO, NO. If you have the slightest doubt, don’t use it. After all the financial loss of discarding it would be a mere Rs. 100 but if we consume it and fall sick, we’ll end up paying the doctor five times that amount. Just throw it away.’
Here, B’s response is based on B’s understanding of what B anticipates A’s viewpoint to be, which in turn may be influenced by B’s experiences with other people, B’s judgement about A’s nature, behavior and personality, B’s confidence in the superiority of the quality of his/her advice…so on and so forth. These factors, which are largely exterior to the situation, drive B to anticipate A’s view to be to cook the rice once to confirm if it is edible or not, whereas it is completely possible that if allowed to finish speaking, A would have suggested that he/she is doubtful about the usability of the rice, so maybe it would be a good idea to throw it away and clean the container so that it can be put to some other use. But of course B doesn’t allow A to finish, perhaps because B believes he has listened enough and, more importantly, understood enough to respond. B believes he/she is well equipped to posit a suggestion that B is sure A is incapable of thinking of.
Person A:- ‘What’s the subject you are researching?’
Person B:- ‘Internationalisation of Indian Higher Education.’
A- ‘You must read the Hunter Commission report and the Woods Dispatch. It would be really useful in your work.’
Here, A’s response seems to be based on the firm belief that B must have definitely not read the aforesaid reports, which are of great consequence in B’s research endeavor – in A’s opinion. This is reflected in the fact that A has made the suggestion without asking B if he/she has read the reports to begin with.
In reality, it is completely possible that B has already read the Hunter’s Commission report, Woods Dispatch and also McCaulay’s minute on Indian Education….
It is also possible that A’s suggestion is completely irrelevant to B’s work.
In this situation A’s response seems to be driven by the need to respond, to exhibit intellectualism and respond immediately, otherwise it would reflect intellectual deficiency. If A and B do not belong to the same academic backgrounds, greater value would be attached to A’s input since in effect it implies that A knows enough to contribute to a discussion on a subject he/she is not expected to be familiar with which, as a matter of general perception, reflects A’s intellectual dynamism. Furthermore, in making the suggestion to someone who is researching the topic and is thereby expected to be knowledgeable in the area, A would also exhibit a degree of intellectual superiority.
A general argument that can be drawn from the above discussion is that people’s responses are very often a function of their biases, which could be both positive and negative in their orientation, opinions, predispositions, stereotypes, their judgment about the person they are conversing with, their evaluation of their own understanding of the world around them, and their perceptions about their own intellectual capabilities and standing vis-à-vis others.
Even as most of these influencing factors may be exterior to the subject of discussion, they nevertheless play a deterministic role in shaping people’s understanding and responses prompted by this understanding. Furthermore, it is a common perception that if one does not respond immediately, it will be read as a mark of either inability to understand or inability to contribute to the discussion, both of which would potentially indicate limited intelligence. The problem therefore appears to be that people are usually in a hurry to reply, perhaps with the motive of portraying themselves as attentive to the subject of discussion, and as capable of interpreting the other person’s view. They wish to appear as intellectually adept enough to assume the role of an active participant in the conversation and they base their responses on their interpretation of the context of the discussion, which they hold with so much certainty that they don’t think it is necessary to verify whether they have understood the perspective of the other person at all.
Therefore it would be more appropriate to suggest that people respond on the basis of their understanding without verifying if there is any cooperation between their understanding and the perspective of their partner in the conversation. On this background it may be appropriate to interpret Stephen’s statement as suggesting that most people listen with the intent to reply without necessarily understanding what the other person intends to communicate.