Something Understood

By Flisan Beard, 52, who is an artist. She lives in Colchester, UK. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

“Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” – Stephen R. Covey. Do you agree?

To listen with the intent to understand takes a curious mind that is open for new learning they don’t yet know, and feel comfortable with not yet knowing.

I’m a social artist and art therapist and I do agree to some degree. For example, think of the masses of people who don’t engage with some art exhibitions, especially conceptual and throw comments such as, “I don’t get it,” it’s ridiculous!” It’s not Art!” Or, “I can easily make that!” Perhaps their critical responses defend them from feeling stupid, for not understanding the visual communication. They often therefore ridicule it, and project their feelings onto the product and the maker.

I think there is an element of that in every verbal conversation. I’ve had people, saying, “Oh no, that’s too deep, I don’t understand, I’m not interested.” So if people don’t think they can understand, maybe they don’t want to listen because they can’t reply.

As an Art Therapist I’ve worked with patients with secondary cancer for 9 years and the patients often explain that most of their friends disappear, because they don’t know what to say in conversation with their dying friend. They feel overwhelmed with sadness, feel helpless, hopeless and useless and this is not easy feelings to face. As a clinical practitioner, you have a team around you to support you in supporting the dying, and that helps you to continue.

The patients often say, “I avoid people now when I’m out because I don’t want to make people feel guilty. I often feel worse after sharing because I can see how uncomfortable I make someone feel, when I try and make them understand what I’m going through.”

This is not good for the patients as they are in need of talking to be understood, not to walk away feeling worse and responsible for how they think they might make someone else feel. In the end they learn to reject themselves. That internalises stigma (Self stigma), and breeds shame even further in society.

I’ve worked with mental health for 12 years and through my experience I’ve found that in this case most people don’t listen with the intent to understand, they often listen with the intent to reply with defense, and stigma attached if they even can listen at all. I think there’s so much fear around mental health due to lack of knowledge of differences. This is such a shame and shame based.

If most people could listen with the intent to understand people with mental health they would notice a lot of unique qualities and talent in people with different mindset. Or even better, if only most people could be supported to listen to understand differences, they might be less frightened of mental health and more curious in how to enhance their strength in society. Some people who have listened with the intent to understand have found this to be true. “Let’s look at what’s strong, instead of what’s wrong!”

I’ve recently begun working in paediatrics with severe chronic disease. The patients are living with physical medical conditions as well as developing mental health issues from social stigma. It takes years of attending medical attention to get their physical condition under some control. Often their mental health breaks down at the end of their physical improvement due to lack of social awareness and community support.

I believe often people don’t listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply and often the reply holds no understanding at all which often alienates the speaker even further and excludes the intention of the subject.

I’m fortunate in Art Therapy to be able to sit in silence sometimes for the whole hour engaged in the visual dialogue with a client. With time I learn the client’s visual language, the meaning of their art materials and colour choices, their mark making, their methods of building and creating a narrative or experimental process. I see it as a dance where I learn to understand and follow the client’s movement until I feel I’m one step ahead through knowing their pattern of movements. If they want me to respond then my intention is to try because I feel something has been understood.

I agree to some degree with Stephen R Covey that, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” In the context that I’ve given.

I remember a quote I heard that I try my best to live by every day, “The more we learn the less we know.”

I think most people think they have to know it all already to engage in a conversation or they might end up feeling excluded. If we stop trying to be superior in conversations and just relax and listen with replies, such as, “I didn’t know that, but that sounds really interesting, tell me more.” “I don’t know what to do to help you, but I’m here to listen if that is helpful?” Maybe then most people would drop their guard and the attention to listen to understand would grow as would empathy.

7 comments on “Something Understood

  1. Christina on

    Very interesting to read and something I’ll try to think about when conversating with others, to listen with the intent to understand and not just to reply.

  2. Christer on

    Very good analysis. We should be more disposed to listen and learn. We can always learn something new every day. But we must be interested in the person we meet and present in the now moment.


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