“Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
A few days ago, my colleague and I were discussing “dead” languages. I was nodding along, almost furiously, excited to broach the sort of topic that comes up maybe once a decade. He was obviously well-read and quick to the draw with his arguments. He knew more about the topic than I did.
As it happened, nodding was the extent of my acknowledgment for his part of the interaction. Once my conversational turn began, I did whatever I could to summarize the YouTube video I had watched about the subject, only realizing after that I must have sounded less like an interlocutor and more like badly-recorded lecture notes.
I could have learned from my colleague, probed his knowledge, edified myself. Instead, I tried to sound well-educated in a topic that I had only been superficially acquainted with. If that sounds disingenuous, that is because it is, which is often the unfortunate reality that is explained so succinctly by Mr. Covey.
His quote might give the impression that there is a kind of rampant narcissism about trapping people in their own echo chambers. Though this explanation has some merit, it accounts for less an effect than we would like it to. Shocking ineffective communication up to self-absorption is well-marked as a sufficient condition of our post-digital age, but the commonality of Covey’s maxim in our everyday social world affirms the fact that it is not beholden only to narcissism.
With that eliminated as the primary mover of this phenomenon, we must reconcile other causes. Perhaps a statement like this leads to an assumption of the inverse, that we do listen with intent to reply, and in replying hope that we will ourselves be understood. There would be something noble in that, but if we just wanted to be understood, then transparency would be ubiquitous. As this does not seem to be the case, I will refute this line or argumentation as well, opting now to deconstruct the lenses by which we frame our interactions with one another.
The world of interpersonal communication is tripartite with regards to the perceptions of the people involved. First, you have your perception of the other; their ideas, personality, and communicational goals. Devoting your mental energy to this element in the midst of communication is the perceptual equivalent of listening with intent to understand.
Second, we have our perceptions of ourselves. This is where we think about our own ideas, our delivery, the force of our personality on our arguments. Privileging this narrow facet (narrow since you are stuck with yourself regardless of an interlocutor’s presence) is akin to the self-absorption mentioned above on one hand, and to an honest attempt at making yourself understood on the other.
With these facets exposed, it is easy to see how the representative schematics for understanding Mr. Covey, painted in broad strokes above, play out within the domains of either communicative filter. But I have stated that communication involves also some third element, which happens to be the one least acknowledged thanks to some level of recoil aimed at keeping our egos intact among its influence.
There is a concept in sociology, introduced by Charles Horton Cooley, called the Looking-Glass Self. Basically, it posits that we come to conclusions about ourselves by conjecturing about the way other people see us. The truth of how they see us, according to this theory, matters not. Only our interpretation of their interpretation is relevant, and it comes to inform how we eventually regard ourselves.
To quickly sum up, we have the triangle of communicative devices constructed thusly: Our perceptions of ourselves, our perceptions of the other person, and our perceptions of the other person’s perception of ourselves. Within this web, the pieces tend to coalesce and meld together, and not neatly. Even so, it is hard to refute that every element plays a distinct role in communication. If we are to analyze the truth and practicability of Covey’s assertion, this framework is a good place to start.
We essentially hold to the assertion that our personalities are forged in the minds of others via the substance of our communications. Following this, it stands that the most salient arena for this smelting of opinion arises from our part of the conversation, i.e. the part where weare talking and gesticulating. Under this category falls the reply.
A reply in and of itself functions most obviously to move the conversation forward. Without it, communication would be only murkily eponymous because it requires some sort of double-ended reception. We can peel towards the core of communicative purpose here and strike at the next layer, which is the purpose the reply serves for the person making it (moving the conversation forward is for the sake of the conversation).
Viewing yourself favorably is the easiest way to eschew the pernicious influence of cognitive dissonance, and getting others to accept your ideas and to view you favorably helps immensely with this. The phenomenon above named occurs when a split arises between your beliefs and your actions, which basically cleaves you into warring mental factions and causes discomfort. Personal psychology is like a language; without internal consistency nothing makes sense, and without making sense of at least what you believe you’re not likely to make sense of much else. Thus communication would be for you rendered not only unintelligible, but ultimately pointless, as anything but a means of restoring a dissonant mind to stasis.
Before expanding on this, we ought move forward while ignoring a certain piece of popular advice: do not worry what other people think of you, a statement often delivered so matter-of-factly that a refutation seems facetious at best, and downright ignorant at worst. Though occasionally sage advice, it remains that we will always have some attachment to how others perceive us. Fashion, soap, and a cavalcade of our finer inventions speak to our need for acceptance. Beyond that, it is plain disadvantageous to not at least keep in mind how others perceive you, as your social mobility and clout (when it comes to job-hunting or seizing opportunities along the career ladder) will pragmatically balloon when you are regarded as positive mental-inventory by others.
We thus approach the final conclusions with two ideas in mind: we want to avoid cognitive dissonance by perceiving ourselves favorably, and we want others to perceive us favorably as well. We can round these conditions out to our advantage during communication, much of which consists of replying. Our replies are the little seeds that we are hoping will spring verdant in the loamy proving ground of the other’s mind.
We do not know how others perceive us, though, and in many instances we are desperate to find out. Since simply asking would be rather faux pas socially, spurring a likely disingenuous reply on the part of the asked, we are left to scruff out the details based on our knowledge of the other person. This is where the aforementioned third perceptual element of communication kicks in. It affirms the luminosity of its presence by double-filtering our reply. We think to ourselves ‘how will this be received?’, imagining how our words percolate with our listeners.
This interpretation works to dull the bite that Covey’s assertion has on us. After all, consideration of your audience’s interpretation or reception of your work is the modus operandi of rhetorical expression and argumentative writing. We listen with intent to reply not because we are narcissists or socially defunct, but because we are often unsure of ourselves, and need the validation of other people to affirm our ideas and help us construct a public persona with some breadth of fecundity.
Not that this essay is meant as a justification for such behavior. It behooves the interests of people everywhere to understand the mechanisms that result in what is often seen as a failure of effective communication, because real-time interfacing is not meant to be rhetorical or argumentative.
When we listen to understand, and reply once we have understood, people sense it and feel valued. There is no better way to get someone to like you than to bolster their self-image by affirming their ideas as valuable (a preemptive disruption of cognitive dissonance, if you will). Effective listening edifies both you and the listener, whereas replying for the sake of bolstering your own self-image through others only benefits you.
It stands then that a failure in the understanding of psychic motivators is at the root of the issue posed by Covey. Understood as such, the premise’s malice is stripped away. It is clear to see that the reasons for the phenomenon would render its opposite, i.e. listening with intent to understand, more in line with the initial goals of listening to reply. Instead of being pessimistic and assuming self-absorption in others, we should strive to illuminate their motivations. Thus armed, we can work together to better understand ourselves and our peers. Only from this understanding can purposive and meaningful communication arise.