Imagine that from this point forward, you are no longer able to hear.
It may come as a surprise but verbal communication is the second most common form of interpersonal communication, not the first. Writer and educator Stephen Covey wrote back in 1989, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” It is estimated that about two thirds of our communication is nonverbal. So, as cliché as it sounds, silence really does speak louder than words. Words alone are meaningless, it is our actions that facilitate understanding.
In our earliest years we begin developing basic communication skills through our major senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. We learn to make connections between what we are experiencing and the world around us. The role these senses play in our communicative development is crucial, fostering a healthy response to the situations we encounter. Without them we are unable to fully make informed decisions on how to act which later in life can result in the inability to express ourselves properly. This inevitably creates problems in how we socialize. Humans are social creatures, but is our ability to socialize effectively breaking down?
When we first engage in a conversation we have a basic intent: to both give and receive information. Picture this: a couple of people conversing with one in particular continually speaking. This person explains while the other sits and nods, a hidden script already prepared behind their eyes that have glossed over after a few minutes. And then it hits. The glassy eyed listener interrupts, “Oh I totally understand. Once I…” I’m sure this sounds familiar as it is played out time and time again right in front of us and we, ourselves, are the culprits.
We all want to be understood, we realize it at a young age. Let’s take the stereotypical teenage phrases: “No one understands me,” or “You don’t understand.” Is it possible that as we start to travel through life, partially freed from the lenses our parents gave us, that we begin to see cracks in how we communicate with each other? Is there actually truth behind these thoughts? Teenagers are infamously dramatic, older generations look at them and say, “It’s just growing pains, you will be okay. I went through the same things when I was your age.” And then, poof, the conversation is over. The thing is, there wasn’t a conversation. There wasn’t communication. We are taught by the very people who care about us the most that our problems do not deserve attention or are not worth discussing. How does this affect our attitudes in communication?
The way that we express ourselves in conversation can make us vulnerable, we are opening up and sharing our experiences, our thoughts and feelings. We have put trust in the person that we are sharing with that they will treat us with care. When we do not listen, ultimately we are telling the other person about their worth. When we do not listen we are saying, “You are not worth my time and attention.” The affect this has on our communication is great in the fact that, once again, we are social creatures. But if we feel that we are not deserving of others attention, what motivation do we have to speak?
I conducted a survey using two popular forms of social networking as well as verbally surveying people I came in contact with over the course of a couple weeks. I asked, “If you could no longer hear from this point forward, what would you miss the most?” I received responses from about 60 people, and I generally got varying degrees of the same 3 answers: Music, the sounds of nature, but most prominently, the voices of others. We want others in our lives, their presence makes us happy, so why does it appear that we do not listen to each other?
The point Covey is making is that we are often self interested. We have this innate need to secure our place in the world, we want to see a world reflected back at us in which we are a part of. Since we are taught so early on that when we express ourselves we will often be met with “walls”- disinterested people- instead of “doors”- interested people- we decide that the only way to see our world is through windows. But the fact is when we look at these windows we make, often they are just mirrors. We see what we want to see.
During the process of writing this article I realized that although initially I felt so wholeheartedly in agreement I came to the conclusion that I don’t fully agree with Covey because the world is not black and white. I have been arguing under the assumption that all people act the same and that is simply not true. We are human, we have faults and differences. We do not always do what is best, what is acceptable, or what is right according to both ourselves and the people around us. We have our own standards, we are unique in how we view and move through the world. Especially in a place like America, our environment is incredibly culturally diverse. To some, silence could indicate boredom as opposed to respectful attention. To some, active speaking in a conversation could indicate engagement and not dismissal.
What Covey says certainly does hold some truth. There are people out there who possess a great deal of self interest, who do not listen to others and often cannot wait to insert themselves into another persons story to tell their own. But many times those people have parts to them that are hidden. Sometimes those who fear not being listened to and speak over others have had a past of just that. The one thing they are missing is not necessarily attention from others, but attention from themselves. We are so fixated on the rest of the world hearing us that we forget to listen to ourselves, we forget to acknowledge our own humanness.
Our experiences in life as we grow older set us up for who we become in the future, but it is up to us to make the changes we need to grow further. To see the diversity in the world and to learn to listen fully, not only to others but on a personal level. I’ve heard it said many times in the past few years, as I have been on a journey of my own self-discovery, that, “You cannot learn to love others if you do not learn to love yourself.” In the most unselfish way, we need to listen to ourselves first, to care enough about our own being to heal the wounds from our past. Once we have learned to be good to ourselves, we can be better for others. We can open our hearts without fear and we can hear again.