In today’s intense political climate it’s easy to imagine the seven billion people on this planet as unrelentingly opinionated candidates in a universal debate. We are the candidates, the earth is our stage. Our egos inveigle us to cling on to our own beliefs and views and encourage us to transform the voices of others into white noise. Counterpoints are no longer stepping stones to compromise and bipartisanship. They are merely something that provide us with the opportunity to respond, to once again vocalise the beliefs that we wrongly assume can anchor us in an increasingly dangerous and turbulent world. Our technology is evolving. Our communication is regressing. There has to be a better way.
I believe that the first thing that should be pointed out is that the vitriolic hate speech that so many people continue to spew doesn’t, in my view, deserve the dignity of an attentive audience. People will argue, and perhaps rightfully so, that to eliminate hate speech would be to diminish the freedom
that is found in a liberal democracy. I would argue that when it comes to the grating sounds of bigotry and hatred, our goal should be to expose it and then deprive it of any further attention. Because replying to their despicable use of their freedom of speech adds to the disorientating cacophony that we find ourselves in now. There is no rational or logical way to respond to modern-day Nazis.
I referred to the human ego in the introduction of this article. The ego has always been a powerful force, but I would argue that its power has grown substantially over time. If we think back to the philosophers of ancient Greece, sitting in that beautiful, sun-drenched Lyceum discussing and debating in a respectful and civil manner, it is clear that their approach contrasts sharply with our approach today. Even these men, with their amazing intellect and wisdom, were cognizant of the fact that they didn’t know everything. That was ultimately why they chose to have these meetings. But nowadays we think we know everything. We think we have all the answers. And, of course, we don’t. Overcoming the narcissism of the ego is obviously easier said than done. But just being aware of our propensity to reject anything and everything that doesn’t correlate with our own perspective is a step in the right direction.
Human beings have been tribal since the very beginning. Our beliefs and opinions are, rightly or wrongly, a large part of our identity. The first part of Covey’s quote states that people “don’t listen with the intent to understand.” You could argue that this is due to the fact that if they really did listen with the intent to understand they might actually find themselves agreeing with a member of a
different “tribe.” They would then perhaps have an epiphany; a realisation that many of their beliefs are in fact flawed. This is simply too vulnerable a position to be in for many people. And thus said people consciously choose to avoid trying to understand what the “other” is saying. They focus all their energy into the reply that will validate their own way of thinking, that will validate the way in which they choose to live their life. This sort of philosophical tribalism seems destined to be a fixture in our society for the foreseeable future.
The greatest irony about forgoing any attempts to genuinely listen to and understand the opposition is that it directly impacts the effectiveness of your response. This was very much evidenced in the presidential debates of 2016. Trump showed no interest in listening to and understanding Secretary Clinton’s comments. When it came to the time for him to respond, his answers were incoherent and tangential. We’ve come to a point where actually listening to someone with attentiveness and trying to understand them is perceived as a sign of weakness, as a form of surrender. But as I just mentioned, if you do make an effort to listen and understand, it will actually improve the quality and substance of your own response. (And even though Trump went on to win the election, the general consensus is that Secretary Clinton outperformed him in all three of the debates.)
Another point that I think needs to be highlighted is just how chaotic, crazed and frantic our world has become. The advancement of technology has created a generation of overstimulated people who don’t know how to sit and be still. Because even just listening “with the intent to reply” requires a certain level of patience and discipline. If we are to get to a place where productive and thoughtful communication abounds, then we quite clearly will need to make an effort to retrain our minds and create environments conducive to this type of communication.
What also seems apparent when examining our burning desire to respond verbally is that so many of us have either forgotten about or are simply unaware of the enormous power of silence. Sometimes saying nothing can convey a great deal. Sometimes the flight option is more savvy than the fight option. On the other hand, maybe we are completely aware of the power of silence. Perhaps we are just a generation of overgrown toddlers; screaming out in order to be noticed. Perhaps we’re just a generation of wannabes; all striving to achieve our fifteen minutes of fame. A dignified silence very rarely attracts attention.
To summarize, it is clear that Stephen R. Covey’s quote certainly holds a great deal of truth. Unhealthy and unproductive communication is unfortunately the new norm. I think we ultimately need to start from a foundation of respect. We need to remember the words of the late great Maya Angelou: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” Let us make a conscious effort to keep our egos in check, to realise that meaningful discussions and conversations are not about who can shout the loudest or who can get the last word. Let’s try to reach a point where we feel comfortable altering, refining and even rejecting some of our own beliefs. And perhaps we will never reach that point, but the environment in which these open-minded and respectful conversations can occur is surely a better environment within which to exist than the one we exist in now.