Listening is an art form, and like most art, it is interpreted differently by every person. Some people listen intently, hanging on every word, trying to understand what is being said. Others, pretend they are listening and give the appropriate head nod or “mm hmm”, but are not actually interested in responding or carrying on a conversation. But most, as Stephen R. Covey states, “don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Whilst it seems like they are listening because they are giving eye contact or other positive non-verbal cues, they are waiting for the moment a statement is completed so they can jump in with their response. There is no moment of reflection or clarification, just BAM, a response. This type of communication is detrimental to humanity–in personal relationships and for society as a whole.
Humans are hardwired to seek belonging and connection with each other. Listening and understanding are key to the creation of those feelings we so desire and crave. Even in our closest relationships, when we are not really listening to each other, the relationship can leave us feeling hurt and invalidated. Hurt feelings from our personal relationships affect our larger-scale conversations within society. What is happening in our approach to personal conversations that is creating this situation? Essentially, we are approaching conversations as a win-lose situation. A person “wins” the conversation if they convince the other person of their position; if they stand firm in their position, unconvinced or swayed by the other person; or if they continue with their position for so long and so loudly that the other person inevitably gives in in order to leave the conversation. This can make the “winner” feel justified in their position and can make the “loser” feel manipulated and used. And while the “winner” may feel good in the moment, inevitably, they will come down from that high because the need for belonging and connection was not fulfilled. The winner will seek out another person to engage in conversation so that the winning feeling returns. The “loser” may question the validity of their viewpoint and self-worth and may start to abstain from engaging in conversations altogether. Neither participant will have had their basic human needs of belonging and connection met and the destructive cycle will continue.
The win-lose approach to conversations extends to people outside of the inner circle, and the destructive cycle spreads into society. If this is the model for personal relationships, people will not know of any other way to communicate. The “winners” will dominate and the “losers” will withdraw. All anyone hears are one-sided arguments–right vs left, pro-choice vs pro-life, or war vs peace–to the point that no one feels truly connected to anyone else. So we pick a ‘winning’ team even if we do not fully agree or understand, just so we have that sense of belonging, no matter how false or how fleeting. We will always feel like something is missing because our basic human needs are not being met.
How can we change? It is easier said than done. We listen. We listen with the intent to understand. We listen knowing that we do not have to agree with each other. We listen knowing that we do not have to react or take things personally. We listen knowing that we do not own, nor are we responsible for, what the other person is saying. We listen knowing that we can be curious without being furious. We change our approach to conversations from a win-lose scenario to a win-win scenario, in which each person walks away feeling that they were heard and understood–this does not have to mean an agreement was reached. It starts small. It starts with the most personal relationships. A parent and child, a sibling to sibling, or a spouse to spouse and it moves on from there. By changing the way we talk to those closest to us, only then, can we change the way we communicate as a society.