As humans, we tend to settle into certain opinions without challenging it through the consideration of the implications of said opinions, or the arguments of other viewpoints on the matter. After all, it is far from difficult to form an opinion on a matter, being that it is usually simply a gut feeling or reaction towards information regarding said matter, often joined by relatively weak justification. However, what we fail to acknowledge is that when faced with a different perspective, we are not truly interested in that dialogue. As American educator Stephen R. Covey puts it, “most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” This statement most definitely holds some truth to it, given our all-too-common habit of confirmation bias.
Generally speaking, it could be said that this world we inhabit is certainly a complex one. In order to be able to cope with the confusion and complexities of our human reality, we have developed systems of simplifying our experiences for the sake of efficacy. For instance, we make our maps general in order to be able to reliably use them. We also try to relate what we do not recognize to what we know, such as in the case of translation between languages. When people first began communicating across languages, they probably had to use the physical world they shared to their advantage. For instance, what in English is the “ocean,” could be called “umi” in Japanese, or “muhit” in Arabic. Since our ancestors did not have the services of Google Translate handy when they encountered people of different cultural or linguistic backgrounds, they had to use the physical world to be able to communicate with each other. With time, people came to more thoroughly understand the cultures and languages of those different from them, which was key for preventing needless conflicts when cooperation was a more preferable alternative.
These systems of simplification served to deepen our reliance on our own perspectives in order to understand the world around us. And given what has been referred to by psychologists as “social identity,” wherein we value those like us more than those different from us, Covey’s statement rings true. When we are listening to others speak, we listen to reply more than understand out of a psychological desire to protect our self-image or self-esteem, since the resultant cognitive dissonance, inconsistencies within one’s beliefs and behaviours, would prove troubling. There is also the fact that culturally, many people are taught that it is better to be right more often than to value the reason or logic behind the arguments of those oppose their so-called “right.” This is implicitly taught by the shutting down of ideas different from what is supported by gatekeepers—authority figures such as parents and community leaders. For instance, those who disagree with said gatekeepers are met with ad hominem responses, attacks of the person and not the argument. Many would prefer to be viewed in a positive light for complying with the prevailing ideas of the community than to be negatively viewed as sympathetic to the “opposition,” rightfully or not. This trend is widespread enough that it can be said to affect even discussions between people of the same mindset, because the inherent desire to protect one’s self-image remains when dealing with the potentially unknown nature of others’ beliefs.
This issue of listening with the intent to reply instead of understanding can be rectified if we were to institute broad changes to the culture surrounding how we handle the opinions of others. History has already shown that humans can hear other voices and understand, given the strides in civil rights made in the name of the likes of the freedom of slaves or the expansion of LGBTQ rights in the United States. In the case of the former, it had to be realized that the slaves that were forcefully taken from their homelands, and the families thereafter torn apart, are not merely objects. And that the economic qualms felt by their owners were minimal compared to the moral and ethical qualms existing in a nation that declared “all men to be created equal.” Regarding the latter, officials had to understand that the government should not be relying on arguments of a religious nature to prevent marriage between people, not to mention the violation of the “right to happiness” that was declared at the United States’ founding. People have the ability to listen to understand, we just have to fine tune our instincts to avoid repeatedly doing this habit of listening to reply, which inherently devalues the viewpoint of the speaker.
Because education has been built up to be the foundation of many cultures, our education system, from grade school to university, ought to encourage students to consider various topics, controversial and fun, from a multitude of standpoints. This could take the form of having students research and present the legalization of abortion from the perspective of doctors, religious folk, as well as other points-of-view, or even finding out why people like apple juice more than orange juice and vice versa. Thus, the developing minds of our future will learn of the value of understanding how other perspectives come to be, without seeking to respond to them, but to respect them.
Similarly, it would be advisable to push for regulations and/or processes that would reward political figures for listening to, and working with, the views of others. Politicians’ first responsibility is not to their political parties or factions, but their constituents. The focus should not be on liberal Democrats clashing with conservative Republicans on, say, immigration. It should be on the collaboration between these different leaders to come up with solutions that are agreeable to as many parties as possible, while also supporting the further growth of their communities. Government shutdowns caused by government leaders failing to compromise or come up with innovative solutions is unacceptable, especially with so much at stake.
Covey was right in saying that “most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply,” but I would argue that it is possible to correct this issue. While it will not be easy, the results will be entirely worth trying to change such an innate habit on a cultural level through the tools that are currently available to us. Even if the more tangible benefits of sociopolitical development or economic prosperity do not appear quite as apparently, or quickly, as would be desired, time will see to it that we can effectively evolve the American society, if not the world. Naturally, if people were to actually listen to understand, our interpersonal conflicts would be more easily resolved. In fact, there is potential to see the resolution of some of our longest-standing global conflicts, such as border disputes and matters concerning religion and state.