Conversing is humanity’s most refined tool for making, breaking and enhancing our relationships. Having to engage in small talk between a work colleague, a stranger or family member is like walking across a delicate tightrope; there is a constant effort needed to stabilize a conversation throughout, achieved more so through active response than active listening (that is, if listening can be thought of as an active process). There is a particular pressure placed on both parties to continue a leisurely dialogue, the ease of which acts as a marker for each person’s personality. A bad converser is thought to have a bad personality. No one wants that. And so, all their efforts are poured into listening, so they know how to reply, rather than listen to understand what the other person is saying.
Though, what happens in situations where that pressure evaporates, or the relationship between the two parties is different? Let us take an example of two lifelong friends, A and B, and split their conversation into two sections.
A begins discussing their plans for a party with B. B then decides to take notes on the plans for the party as they will be attending.
A begins to tell B about the hypothetical scenarios that could play out at the party; A’s ex-significant other shall be attending. B begins to come up with a story about how A’s ex-partner will act foolishly. A laughs and brings up an anecdote about their ex.
In Section 1, B’s intentions are clearly to listen and understand to know what is going to happen at the party. Conversation thus becomes communicative. Their intention switches however in Section 2, to that of listening and replying to A. But, it is perhaps from a perspective of understanding A’s trepidation of their ex being at the party or their desire to make fun of their friend’s ex. Conversation here solidifies their relationship and simultaneously becomes a form of entertainment for both.
What has just been demonstrated is that conversations have differing functions (here being communication and entertainment) and it is through inspecting those functions that we can understand each party’s intentions in listening and understanding or listening and replying. It would be impossible to list all the functions of conversing, but I shall list the most common (two of which I’ve already mentioned): entertainment (such as using anecdotes or ranting to a friend), arguments (political, social or personal), communication (simply getting across information e.g. teaching, explaining or telling someone something).
These three can be thought of as a spectrum: with a communicative conversation, a person’s intention to both listen and understand are evident; with entertainment it’s a mixture of both; and in an argument a person’s intentions (usually, if they are angry) is to do neither.
However, this theory assumes that there is a universal understanding of how to listen to someone or that each person will listen to the same degree. Undoubtedly, listening is a conscious effort, hence there is a difference between the ideas of hearing what someone’s saying and listening to what they’re saying. For example, if there is a communicative conversation where X is telling Y to make a cup of tea and X does not fulfil the orders, then X is assumed to have not actively listened, they have simply heard the command. As a result, X has listened but not understood.
And here arises the question, what was their intention in the first place though? Listening requires less conscious effort than understanding, but does understanding need to be proven? Does it need to be shown? In this example, yes, because understanding is followed by completion of the command.
But, let’s think about this using an example of an extreme type of conversation, one using the Socratic Method. The tightrope in those conversations becomes invisible, the balance is constantly maintained as Socrates would often perform more of an inquiry into a person’s views as opposed to pressing his own onto them, like in a usual argument or debate. A modern example would perhaps be two people discussing their views on a recent political change, not necessarily trying to get another to change their minds, but rather acknowledge their perspective on the matter. This also means that the intentions of understanding becomes less tangible but listening becomes more so; the two no longer work together, and in fact replying is favoured. How can you know if someone is intending to understand your viewpoint on the matter? You can’t unless you directly question them. One’s intention to listen would be best understood through the lens of response; the better responses a person gives, the more they have listened to what you have been saying. Thus, understanding can actually be shown through listening and intending to reply rather than simply understanding. Understanding can therefore be thought of as a passive, immeasurable indicator of one’s intentions to pay attention to a conversation (from the perspective of the other party); responding to a conversation, on the other hand, demonstrates engagement and so is a more tangible method of knowing someone’s intentions in listening.
Replying is often looked at from a shallow perspective as it can be viewed as focusing all one’s energy on to themselves. Nonetheless, listening with an intention to understand and listening with an intention to reply don’t need to be thought of as opposing or binary forces. The actual difference is found between whether someone has the intention to listen or hear what you’re saying, which lies within the function of what you’re talking about. It is difficult to say, therefore, whether an intentional understanding of any conversation is what most people strive towards, as it is highly dependent upon contextual factors. However, if I were to ascribe a universal answer I would say that understanding can only be achieved with an intention of both listening and replying to the opposite party. A combination of pre-conceived notions a person has about themselves, the function of a conversation, and an intention to respond to the material at hand, all merge to create the push needed to start the conscious effort of listening, which is in itself a strange and complex act to perform.