Understanding and Replying

By James Lim. James, 19, lives in Singapore. Please read his article and leave your thoughts and comments below. (*Shortlisted for the 2018 prize!)

It is amazing, isn’t it, how much we speak, yet how little we listen. We want to be heard, yet refuse to hear; we want to be understood, yet refuse to understand. We think we know what others are saying, but deep down we know we don’t. We live in a tone-deaf world, a world of opinions, not of understanding. Choosing between replying and understanding is a choice, a choice we make every day of our lives, yet a choice we do not understand. We are granted a greater capacity to shout our opinions onto the world – it is time we understood what that entails.

The main qualitative difference between Stephen Covey’s conception of replying and understanding is choice. Replying involves us making a conscious choice to commit to giving our opinions to a conversation before the conversation has finished. Understanding involves us delaying that choice until the other party has said his opinions and we have understood it. When we choose to reply before understanding, we are making a preemptive choice in how we are going to react to the conversation. That influences the way we respond to the conversation, changing the way we treat the other party we are speaking to. By understanding this difference, we understand why we frequently choose to reply, not to understand. It is time we understand how we make the choice between replying and understanding.

A reason why replying seems so innately appealing to us can be attributed to the way we instinctively think. There is a primitive part of our brain that constantly appeals to the dormant animalistic instinct in all of us. It constantly tempts us to respond emotionally rather than logically in a conversation. It tells us to speak before we think. Worse off, our brain sends us a burst of endorphins to rewards us every time we do so, incentivizing us to continue our behavior. That makes it hard for us to not reply. We can get addicted to our own opinions and viewpoints; we want to say what we say for the sake of saying it. Ultimately, choosing to reply gives us actual physical satisfaction. The predisposition to reply is biological. We are all instinctive repliers. The choice to reply, consequently, is not a rational one, but an instinctive one. We make it without thinking.

However, it is not a claim that we are all instinctive creatures. There is something that separates us from animals, who are all creatures of instinct. That something is empathy. Empathy gives us the ability to project our current self into others and understand the consequences of our actions on other people. We can delve into the feelings and emotions of another person and arrive at a depth of understanding beyond what we could ever imagine. Empathy is the biological tool that we have evolved to counteract our instincts. Use it. We could use this ability we have to control our desire to reply and seek to understand instead. Empathize with whom you are speaking too. Empathy is another emotion we have to get more in touch with to make a better choice between replying and understanding. We should practice empathy for who we are speaking to.

A practical way for us to practice empathy comes from the late psychologist and humanist Carl Rogers, who advocated a deceptively simple way to avoid our human tendency to misunderstand – Repeat what the other person says. It is simple. Repeating another person’s opinions forces us to vocalize what our unconscious biases are, making it apparent when we have misunderstandings about the other party. That presents the other party an opportunity to correct our misunderstandings, preventing us from giving a reply based on an incorrect interpretation of what they are saying. This prevents us from strawmanning another person’s opinion, allowing us to empathize with what the other party is saying much more effectively. Understanding another person’s argument is not as difficult as it seems and we have no excuses not to do so. Beyond that, taking a moment to repeat what the other person is saying also gives us a moment to bring our emotions into check, preventing us from being overtly emotional. We have methods to control the choice between replying and understanding. It is within our control to decide how the conversation would progress.

Furthermore, how we approach a conversation can also significantly influence another party’s choice on whether to reply or understand us. We may be the reason why no one seems to understand what we are saying. When we start a conversation talking about generalities that are vague and ambiguous, we actively incentivize other people to reply rather than understand us. After all, how could we expect to be understood when we cannot even express what we think clearly? It is no wonder that a conversation predicated on generalities inevitably leads to a vague and ambiguous conclusion where neither party seems to understand the other. This is a consequence of the uncertain aims of the conversation we set up in the first place. A conversation cannot take place in smoke and mirrors. An ideal conversation should be one predicated upon the smallest possible issue that can possibly be resolved. That increases the possibility for understanding by reducing the complexity of the issue for either party. Instead of saying “You are a bad father.”, try saying “I don’t like the way you forget to clear the trash out everyday, Dad.” instead. Now, both parties could talk about the specific issue being raised. It is easier to understand what you are talking about when it is simple and obvious. If we want to be understood, make it easier for people to do so. The way we approach the conversation can influence how likely people are going to choose between replying and understanding.

Nevertheless, choosing to reply is not a choice without merit. It would be unreasonable to fault those who reply without attempting to understand why they do so. Ultimately, if we do not understand why people choose to reply rather understand, how are we different from them?

There are some issues that lie close to one’s heart and do not allow for any compromise. Religion, faith, politics – beliefs we hold in these domains can form a crucial part of who we are. It can be hard, sometimes even impossible, for us to accept the possibility of any other alternative existing. Choosing to understand the other parties worldview can seem incredulous to us. We don’t want to understand the alt-right movement. We don’t want to understand atheism. We don’t want to understand why someone can be pro-life, not pro-choice. To us, the other side may seem to be wrong, even evil. How could we ever sympathize with them? In such instances, it is understandable for us to choose to reply instead. After all, it would be idealistic to expect a world in which everyone could be empathetic towards everyone. Sometimes, there are certain issues we cannot accept as being wrong. Even beyond that, there are certain viewpoints that we would not even consider understanding. Is murder an understandable viewpoint? What about genocide? What about suicide? To some of us, there is nothing that could be understood about these viewpoints. Hence, we choose to reply over understanding. We cannot conceptualize how it could be any other way.

Yet, let us question that. Is there any viewpoint that could be unacceptable? Perhaps no. Everyone has a reason for saying what they are saying. That reason, no matter whether it is right or wrong, is something that is worth understanding. We need to understand why people believe in what they are believing in, to change what they are believing in. Only by understanding what shaped and created their viewpoint can we attempt to change that. There is no reason for us to deny their right to be understood. Even if we believe that we are right, try to understand why they are wrong. That is the way for us to move forward.

It is easy to feel in the polarised world of today that no one understands us. It is easy to feel that we are alone, that our words are not heard. In such times, it is helpful to remember why that is the case. We, too, are perpetrators as much as victims of such a world. What one could hope for is that by choosing to understand instead of replying, we could eventually change the world to do the same. Understand why people choose to reply, reply to make them understand.

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