“Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” – Stephen R. Covey
I disagree; Covey’s generalized assumption betrays in himself the same quote-unquote flaw in the human condition that he fears plagues others. Intent is a subjective facet of the subconscious and in claiming to understand intent, Covey himself engages in the practice of replying without understanding, categorizing without analyzing. But that’s okay – most people listen to reply because in replying, they hope to understand. Covey is as much at fault as the rest of us, as me, here, attempting to understand by way of writing this article.
We are inherently self-serving creatures. To listen – that is, to actively engage with the musings of another human being – requires the sacrifice of your own inner monologue for the briefest of moments. And our inner monologue is precious. Our inner monologue is where the magic happens. Our ability to think – passive or active – is a crucial skill that facilitates every non-biological aspect of our being. To reply is to engage and to engage is to invest time and energy outside of ourselves. So be it that we do so in a manner that may ostensibly appear selfish – at least we’re engaging.
The problem now lies in the so-called intent of the original speaker. Because even the speaker is human, is self-serving with their own inner monologue to satiate, they may place the burden of understanding on the listener without room for an equal trade; a different take on Covey’s original quote: Most people don’t speak with the intent to engage with the reply; they speak with the desire to be instantaneously understood. With the advent of social media outlets such as Twitter, these viscerally gratifying digital echo-chambers have only increased our desire for immediate concurrence of the most dearly held of our ideals to our least informed opinions. If one doesn’t agree – that is, if one chooses to reply in a manner that is perceived to be selfish or, say, antagonizing, instead of feigning accordance – they are marked as outsiders who never intended to understand in the first place.
One may argue that there must be individuals who reply just to reply, to hear themselves talk as it were, and individuals who speak simply to be understood, not questioned. However, I would rebut that argument with my initial premise of what listening truly entails: the break from inner monologue and the subsequent engagement with an idea or thought, regardless of the respective intents of the parties involved, betrays in all parties a desire to understand. From there, the onus lies not just on the presumed listener, but on all parties to continue this dance of engagement until an understanding is reached.
Weary the dance of engagement soon becomes, because we are bound to our inner monologues. To divert attention from the current status of our truth is not only to expend energy to understand an extraneous variation of truth, it is to potentially commit an incalculable amount of future energy to the task of rebuilding our now deconstructed truth into a state where it once again feels whole. In this process of deconstructing and rebuilding lies the priceless property of engagement; this is the implied cost of a reply, regardless of the intent of the listener. Whether wittingly or otherwise, this is the burden taken upon by a soul willing to engage, and why even the most perceivably self-important of replies should be taken as an attempt to understand.
This oft overlooked investment of self may be why so much discourse concludes long before a true understanding is reached; it may be why Covey was led to believe that the average human being tasked with the ostensibly simple task of being a thoughtful listener often seems to end up as ostensibly thoughtless replier. The lack of some immediately enlightened source of understanding paints the replier as callous and at odds with the desires of the speaker. Perhaps the speaker wants not to be understood, for they have calculated the cost of a potential unearthing of their previously self-evident truth; perhaps the speaker merely wants feigned understanding to bolster their position; perhaps a world of perpetually understanding agreers only serves to make any future attempt at engaging with disparate listeners more painful and, in turn, more useless to the on-going fortification of one’s inner monologue; perhaps in wanting listeners to simply understand and not reply, we are teaching speakers to simply speak and not listen.
Understanding is an open channel between speaker and listener that requires all parties to selflessly submit to the cause of mutual enlightenment. It is a near-impossible task to ask of such inherently self-serving creatures as us humans, which is why I choose to cherish those briefest of respites from one’s inner monologue where they choose to engage with a given statement of mine; maybe, through these steady sacrifices of our own truths, we may eventually exchange enough replies to arrive at a point of mutually beneficial insight.