When the author, Stephen R. Covey, made his observation that most of us listen with the intent of replying rather than understanding, he hit on one of the most important concepts of modern human communication. There are several reasons we do this. If we wish to change and become better listeners, it will help a great deal to understand why we find ourselves scarcely able to let the last word of a sentence come out of another’s mouth before we open our own.
Perhaps the most obvious reason is a certain self-centeredness with which all human beings must deal in our nature. People want to be understood, we want our thoughts heard and how. It can be an almost superhuman effort, however, to listen carefully to the thoughts of someone else. Some people just like to talk, some people may have felt unheard for most of their lives and are determined that they will be unheard no longer.
Then there are the introverts, the quiet ones who like it that way. They may be able to refrain from speaking with great success and still miss the attempted communication of a conversational partner. If they are also shy, the abject terror of having to hold a conversation at all can be a very effective block to absorbing any information, and then the reply is simply an effort to finish up the painful encounter as quickly as possible.
To some, thoughts come in an eternal flash flood. There is never a time when a whitewater of ideas is not surging through their brains, filling every side channel and backwater to the brim and overflowing all mental riverbanks. The thinker is a kayaker in a frail craft, riding the deluge as best they can, dodging mental logs, branches, and various flotsam in a never-ending effort to stay afloat and pointed in a generally right direction. This way of thinking is a gift, but a gift that requires discipline to use well. Lacking order, focus, and structure, it can quickly devolve into a whirlpool of chaos and frustration.
It is difficult for anyone today to be able to concentrate fully on one thing at the best of times; in fact, with the internet age providing browsers that allow us to keep umpteen tabs open at once, and smartphones that we carry with us 24/7, it has become nearly impossible. For those whose brains were already swirling, the challenge becomes that much greater. So much information is available that we are in constant danger of tipping our kayaks over and drowning in its great, stormy river.
“Look with your eyes, darling,” my little daughter admonished me years ago when something important she had been trying to show and tell me about had not been adequately noticed. She had a point, but the real problem had more to do with my mind being disengaged than my eyes or ears. Surely, sound and light waves had contacted my seeing and hearing apparatus, but the communication carried on them had not truly entered my busy mind. My reply to her had apparently missed the mark. I had, as Mr. Covey noted, been listening with the intent to reply, not to understand.
In a world where words fly around the world in seconds, ideas and ideals increasingly clash, and making yourself heard on any and every topic has become not only possible but applauded, it takes courage to stop. Just stop for a moment and listen to someone else. Look at them. Absorb what they are saying. Connect it with what they are showing you. Turn it over in your mind and consider it for just a minute. Is it possible you will discover a rich gift in what has been offered? Do you have the strength it takes to put down the phone, turn away from the computer screen, set your preconceived ideas to the side for a second, and just listen with your mind, darling?