Covey writes at an interesting time for humanity. While his quote is taken from a book about personal change, it is also written in the context of effectiveness. Effectiveness can be defined differently depending on one’s context, but this essay focuses on two perspectives: One is of the Responder, and the other is of the Understander. These two perspectives can often seem to be opposites, but are in fact interdependent.
The short response to the essay question “Do you agree” is, therefore, “yes” due to the current state of affairs, but “no” in an ideal sense.
To be effective is to be able to adapt in a world commanded by logic and the scientific method. In this world, the bonds of cause and effect are considered the foundation of knowledge itself. To “know” in a logical world is to be able to prove how you know physically. The more you prove, the more effective you can be.
But in the real world around us today, logic is not the only way we know. We also know through metaphysical inspiration, such as religion, family, and interactions with one another. Each of these interactions has a different result of success, and therefore, of effectiveness in their respective definitions.
So when we speak of effectiveness, we are at once torn between a formal, structured theory of knowing, and an informal, fractured diversity of knowings.
On one hand, we are trained through a consistent path of learning – schools, universities, offices – on which we end up being experts in a specific field. We are taught that the more we can be judged on merit, the higher our chances of being effective.
On the other hand, we are brought up with culture – language, art, ethics – that exposes to us the plethora of difference in which we exist. Through culture, we are taught that our difference is our strength, and the patience to learn about the other makes us effective.
Just as “effectiveness” can be defined in two ways, so can Covey’s “listener”: One who listens to reply, and one who listens to understand. We will refer to them in what follows as the Responder and the Understander respectively.
The Responder is driven by instigation to reinforce what they have been taught. They are trained in a school, university or office to be an expert. They thrive on merit and competition, and seek to create the greatest physical returns on the work they do compared to their peers.
The Understander is driven by a thirst to know more about the other. They are brought up in culture, spending most of their time in conversation with people of religion, family and friends, and believe in learning through it. They thrive on difference and collective pursuit.
Considering effectiveness, then, how do the Responder and Understander define it? The Responder is likely to define effectiveness as the first definition – formal, structured, logical. The Understander is likely to define effectiveness as the second definition – informal, diverse, cultured.
However, the Responder and the Understander cannot possibly be unrelated entities.
The Responder and the Understander need each other. A Responder must first have a basis on which to reply; and idea, theory, or a belief. And an Understander must have a source of understanding from which to learn; a speaker, debater, or a preacher.
Yet, in Covey’s supposed frame of perception, they are very different entities. How is this so?
It is not so. But without thinking about it, we assume it is and the difference between the Responder and the Understander grows.
A few centuries before Covey’s book, we began destroying the Understander’s world, and holding praise only for the Responder’s world. The Industrial Revolution, and every social, political and economic shift since then has been in pursuit of protecting what can be physically known, instead of wondering about that which cannot be seen, heard, or touched.
Physical knowledge can be solidified into fact, because with the scientific method, we can share common truths. This is not possible with metaphysical learning. Two people may not share the same belief, love, hunger of a phenomena, but two people can definitively agree on the color, sound or shape of a thing.
Humanity has less debate in the Responder’s world, so the Understander is made to wander on their own, alternative world.
But if we can consider the Responder and the Understander as fundamental pillars of one human mind, then there is only one world in which we exist as both Responders and Understanders, as people. In this unified world, we can consider both approaches to knowing by collectively pursuing that which is common to all, and taking time to learn about that which is only for some.
In this unified world, most people will listen to understand and then reply, and few will listen only to reply, or only to understand.