“Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

By Ashish Khandalikar. Ashish is a student at the IIT Guwahati, in India. Please read his article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

I’d rather say some people listen with the intent to reply, few listen with the intent to understand; most don’t listen at all! I mean it’s a beautiful life, why waste it listening to tall tales that we come up with over and over again?  Jokes apart, the important question is does it matter? Do people desperate to reply miss out on something? Can you respond to something without understanding it?

The primary belief here is that we are shallow people. “Shallow” for lack of a better word. Understanding something, especially something new, requires effort. You need to listen carefully, as objectively as you can, discerning what you can, not only from what the person is saying but also in what context the conversation is taking place. You need to hold your judgement until the very end, stop yourself from drawing conclusions prematurely and just sit still and listen. This becomes even more important if the speaker is himself struggling to put words to his thoughts. A classic example would be a conversation between a therapist and client. The psychiatrist, to understand, listens intently to what his client is trying to say. Focus not only on the words but also on his body language, background, personality, the severity of the situation. On top of this, she needs to do all this from the client’s perspective. She needs to judge the severity of the problem not for her but for the client. In short, she needs to put herself in the client’s shoes. Then come to her own view and using her expertise in the field try to offer a solution.

This exercise as mentioned before is quite taxing. Generally, people don’t want to go through all this trouble, and frankly, most do not have the mental bandwidth required to do so. Therefore, what do they do? They listen to the bits, try to find similar situations and comment on it. They are ones most likely to say “Oh you know what? This reminds me of a situation when …” Alternatively, they assert or deny the proposition based on their predispositions. Their statements have less to do with the logic presented before them and more to do with what’s playing in their heads. It’s true, we see what we want to see. There is a confirmation bias at play. On the bright side, though, this is a good thing. As we are a fairly advanced species and have been living in more or less the same way (society wise at least) we can fairly assume, there is nothing new under the sun. So most certainly, the initial hunch that we have about the problem is often right. The interpretation, although not accurate, is a good representation. So it allows us to function, converse, without having to bust our heads.

However, by following the good enough representation, we miss out on the richness of the conversations. We miss the fact that the situation, how-so-ever similar, is not the same. It’s new. It’s nuanced and I think the beauty of our daily lives lies in this very distinction. This understanding is what makes us different from machines. The alarm app on my mobile phone wishes me good morning everyday when I turn it off. Similarly, my girlfriend too wishes me the same when we meet for our classes, but there’s a difference. If I listen attentively, I notice that she says it cheerfully on days when she is happy. She drags it along when she hasn’t slept well, stiffly when I have pissed her off in some way, in a passing manner when she is looking forward to a busy day or in a loving way when… well I have no clue why she does that at times!
We notice such things only when there are special occasions. These are generally the firsts of experiences. For example, the first times a baby speaks. The saying first impression is the last impression is exactly because of this thing. This is the only time we consider him as a new person. After that we consider someone again only if he does something extraordinary. By the way, something out of the world, these days is something quite literally just that. It’s difficult. Unless we start noticing little things in life, having an appreciation for the nuances, we are in for quite a boring and mundane life.

Finally, I guess we need to listen more with an intent to understand not for the speaker but so that we lead a rich and fulfilling life where we can appreciate the little things along with the extraordinary ones.

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