Most people don’t listen with an intent to understand, they listen with an intent to reply.” Stephen Covey. Do you agree?

By Yaseera Kapadia. Yaseera, 34, is a human resources assistant from Ottawa, Canada. Please read her entry and leave your thoughts and comments below.

I agree. It doesn’t matter whether people listen or not. That is because, end of the day, they already have a response ready. And why is that? Because long before people start to communicate, the purpose of communication has already been determined.

Let’s start from the start. When we are going for an interview, we already know what we have to do – impress. When we have used too many sick leaves and the boss calls us to his office, we know it is time to justify. When it is 5th of the month and the phone is buzzing with landlord’s name flashing, we know what happens if we are not apologetic and polite. A sales manager is headed for a sales pitch and he knows what hit it is going to take on his sales graph if he is not ready with the client’s rebuttal. The day you haven’t answered your wife’s calls, being aware of the impending doom is enough to keep you ready for some answers before you ring the doorbell.

This is human nature – being prepared – making a plan – working towards what we want or towards avoiding the outcome we don’t want. It is a habit we have acquired over centuries. This is how we survive and in a way, thrive.

Being prepared after all is not such a bad thing. It is in fact a sort-after quality. In an entrepreneur, a leader, an initiator. Working towards a goal is a positive thing!

Yes I am making it sound so positive – Listening with an intent to reply – that is not how Stephen Covey wanted it to come across. And that is not how I intend as well.

Quite frankly and unfortunately, however, that I believe is the prime reason for our intent to reply – our comfort in knowing the purpose behind all that goes on around us. As we are talking, as we are listening, at every step, even in times we are quiet, just observing, we are constantly judging, constantly trying to make sense of things going on around us. On the bus, while driving, watching a video, looking at friends talking, even when we are looking at a fellow passenger sitting across from us. We have a need to categorize things and people around us so we can use it for our benefit. This makes us jump to conclusions about what is being said. We are, therefore, listening less and assuming more. Understanding less and preparing more for a response.

This is why when the boss is giving you feedback on your performance during your quarterly review, you probably know you haven’t done a great job and aren’t expecting great comments so the moment he starts, you take off with your plan. Up in your head, you are planning on what reasons to give that might come close to valid. You also probably know your case isn’t too strong but you are thinking, “it doesn’t hurt to be hopeful!”

So there you go. You start to think of all those reasons and the way you are going to put it across to the boss so he buys them. A weak attempt but an attempt anyway!

What you could, however, be missing out on is what he is saying – how he already is aware of your challenges and that how he could have been of help, had you approached him on time and how now he is giving you a time-bound opportunity to prove yourself one last time before he pulls you off work for an unpaid training program. At this point, having missed out on such a great response from an extremely understanding, cooperative and fair reporting manager, you are stuck with a defensive response. So the moment he stops to talk, you start with your defence pitch.

And after having shown all the fairness and having offered the most fair plan of action, what your boss is really expecting is a genuine apology and an expression of gratitude from your end. This, in my opinion, would be an ideal response that would reassure your boss he did the right thing by giving you another chance. Your defensive attempt though, has only added to the negative marking you already had on your documented review. Apart from the other parameters where you haven’t met company expectations, he is now also marking you down on your listening skills and professional approach during the review. This also means that you are most likely going to need to prove a lot more than what he has documented in your action plan.

After having worked for 8 years as a communication trainer, I got an opportunity from my fastidious boss to sit through the training he is certified to conduct – 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The training for which companies and professionals pay thousands, I consider myself privileged to sit through without paying a dime.

“Do you seek first to understand then to be understood?”

This is another significant point Stephen Covey made that needs a discussion here.

Yes, we all have the need to be understood. But before fulfilling my need, I have learnt that I have an obligation to earn it. In some way, I need to earn my right to be understood by first fulfilling my responsibility to understand.

This is the responsibility of a communicator, rather of anybody who is a part of an interaction with a goal in mind. I see it this way – it is not any different from the simple give and take we talk about in all our dealings, personal or professional. If we want something, we first need to give. If we want people to understand us, we need to first understand them, understand where they are coming from, why they are saying what they are saying, why they are behaving a certain way. Once we have understood this, we are able to sit back, take a moment, frame a response and then speak.

But if we have already decided that this is what we are going to talk, what the other person is saying is not going to matter, isn’t it?

And that is not fair to him. What if we switch places with that person and whatever you say is not going to matter because that person already has a response ready. Well then the best thing to do is end this conversation before it has begun.

Crude but logical.

Lastly, the best way I can think of ending this piece is by sharing a personal experience. I had heard of reviews from the participants of the 7 Habits training program. Most said it was a life-changing experience. I wanted to find out if a 3-day slide presentation can do that to someone – change their life. And when I sat through it, I realized it was up to me. What Stephen Covey in the video and my trainer in the sessions spoke about was completely invaluable but it was up to me to implement it in to my daily approach.

I can not say I am able to practice every principle I learnt there in every single interaction I undertake, but every time I do practice, I know I am in for a win. I know that every time I am listening to someone and doing it genuinely, there is no way that person is going to sideline my need of being heard when it is my turn to talk.

8 comments on “Most people don’t listen with an intent to understand, they listen with an intent to reply.” Stephen Covey. Do you agree?

  1. Manoj Tiwari on

    Very nicely articulated article. I resonate with the whole idea of listening to reply because that is precisely how communication works. Good job yasi. Keep at it!!!


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