I agree with Mr. Covey, most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.
That in itself is not too bad. People like to be heard. People want to voice their opinion, People want to share their side of the story. This is our nature, This is to be expected. And at the basic level, it can be managed. When you’re speaking, you are gauging the response. You may then attempt to restate your idea accordingly, and more to the point, it can lead to some eventual, basic understanding. Let’s call it a workable understanding, something from which a greater understanding can develop in time, with patience, with an open mind, with reflection, with further analysis, with further information, and with proper give-and-take.
This proper give-and-take might look like this: I give you a thought, and then you give me a thought. I give you a modified thought in return, and then you give me a modified thought in return. I give you yet another modified thought, and so on until some understanding is achieved because we are taking the time, out of respect, out of decency, to really listen and not just reply. We do so knowing that neither one of us will get what he or she wants completely. We compromise, finding some common ground between extremes, what Socrates called the Golden Mean.
But what I’d like to say is that too often in today’s media-saturated world, what passes for communication are sound-bites, talking-points, half-formed opinions, half-truths, sometimes even blatant falsehoods, personal agendas, media manipulation, shock videos and instant messaging, personal vendettas, and the inability to think before acting…or replying.
Sometime last month I had to meet a friend after a photoshoot. We were class mates in college and we used to be very close. I had so much to say to her and I already prepared several conversations in my head. I also needed someone to listen to some challenges I was facing and probably suggest a solution. We met later that evening and the conversation began, then O noticed, just five minutes into our conversation she was already distracted, staring at her phone, giggling every now and then. She tried to focus, turned her gaze towards me and made a mild smile. Not to add that she drops an occasional “Oh I’m sorry”…”oh wow” and some other seemingly automated similar replies, it was like she had them prepared at the tip of her tongue. I thought to myself, she gave no meaningful reply, how would she when she’s not even listening?. The evening passed slowly and we said our goodbyes, it was one sided and I considered it a waste of conversation, and I wondered if there’s anyone in this world that would try to listen to me.
Isn’t it true that some things require very careful consideration in the first place? You actually need to think things through some things. But I understood that sometimes in our daily lives, we are driven to distractions by our Smart phones, movies, music, or just simple traffic; and important decisions are never made. They are perpetually postponed. So maybe we could meet some other time, maybe we could try again, and maybe then we would communicate better.
There is not enough honest attempt at communication. There is only the triumph of one’s viewpoint at the cost of another’s. This is a world of noise. This is a world of distortion. This is a world of verbal and visual clutter. This is a world of rhetoric at its worst. This is not the world of elevated ideas. This is a world a twenty-four-hour news repeating yet another vicious-cycle of some combination of the above. This is a world of instant fame…or shame. This is a world of instant glory. This is a world of the tabloid, sensationalistic story. This is story for the sake of story. This is a world of people shouting at each other instead of listening. This is a world where a workable understanding cannot be reached because it can’t even be heard. But we need to hear each other…one word, one conversation, one reply at a time. And we need to realize that listening is an active process not a passive one. It requires conscious effort and constant reminding. And we must realize that we are all communicators: friends, colleagues, family. And we are all on the same planet together. It is in our vested interest to listen, understand, and communicate better with one another, across boundaries.
There are also strong interpersonal aspects of communication, which perhaps suffer from their own noise and make understanding and communicating difficult. Parents don’t always listen to their kids, and kids don’t always listen to their parents. Husband’s don’t always listen to their wives, and vice versa. Friends have disputes. Accusations are made. Misunderstandings arise, sometimes even over petty or trivial things that in hindsight, seem entirely regrettable. But you know how it is: once something is said, you cannot ever take it back no matter how hard you try.
Sometimes questions are not always understood or not properly posed. Even worse, some questions don’t have obvious answers, since life is often a shade of gray, an interesting parallel to Socrates’ golden mean theory. Gray and gold. Gray shades and golden means.
Complicating matters even more is that fact that we don’t even always understand ourselves, our own actions, our own motivations, our own desires, our own conflicting thoughts and impulses. We are beings with inherent contradictions.
Likewise, some conversations are about incredibly sensitive issues, whose meaning turn on incredibly subtle meanings of words, and the elusive nature of body language. Sometimes it’s how we say things that matters most. And sometimes silence speaks louder than words. Oh, there’s a paradox: silence among all that “noise.” How is that possible? But, of course, ours is a very complicated world.
Not only is listening an active process, but productive, fruitful conversation, whether at home or work, requires skill. And let’s face it, some people just simply “listen” better than others listen. It requires disciplined effort not to jump to conclusions or not to curtly “cut people off” before they have finished making their point. Perhaps this one little thing is closest to what Covey is referring to about “replying.”
But back to the interpersonal aspects. Sometimes we have a tendency to allow personal animosity to impede communication. Sometimes people reject a speaker’s words right out of hand because of rejecting him or her. Sometimes we suffer from selective hearing: that is, hearing what we merely want to hear based on our own biases and designs and ignoring what does not conform to our preconceived notions. You might even say sometimes, we don’t even have notions; we have only emotions, raw emotions, which get the better of us and cloud our judgment and the issue. I’m quite certain we’ve all been guilty of that once or twice in our lives. Sometimes, when our passions get the better of us, we pick fights in the course of a conversation, taking our frustrations out on another person or groups of people.
Take for instance the Nigerian House of Assembly, Brawling in the Nigerian House of Assembly has been a regular occurrence in the past years, and as embarrassing as that may sound in this year and age, we have civilised men seated in rows, wailing violently at the other, saying harsh words, disregarding the fact that they’re are on national TV, sometimes the house of assembly turns into a wrestling ring, with chairs flying around and our so called leaders exchanging punches in the most derogatory fashion possible, the entire conversation becoming nothing more than a verbal duel of insults, language abuse, slander, and heated rhetoric that serves no greater good. When instead, they should really be listening to the ideas being said. Sure, not all ideas are equal. Some ideas are even bad. But first they should at least listen.
Yet, let’s face it. Listening is hard work. It requires energy and makes demands on the mind and body. When we are tired, we are irritable, and irritability is never good in a conversation. Sometimes being tired is a reason for procrastination. Important decisions get postponed. And this is its own vicious cycle: always putting off thing for tomorrow. It’s always best to address things head on and immediately. But do we always?
If we could truly listen and understand each other and even ourselves, what would it feel like? Would it be like a light bulb going off in your head? Would there be a glint of recognition in your eye that the person you are communicating with would see? What would be the universal outcome of true understanding and the ability to sit down and really listen? Certainly, it would be a lot quieter place in the end.
And who knows, with all those light-bulbs going off, it might also be a much brighter place, perhaps, all because we took the time to listen and understand and not just merely reply.