Why Do We Listen?

By Danielle Keating. Danielle, 22, is a student at Concordia University. She lives in Oceanside, CA, USA. 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.” This is a Stephen R. Covey quote that has my narcissistic ass feeling personally attacked. Despite my current state of butthurt, Covey has a valid point. His point is so valid that it made up an entire unit in my interpersonal communications class.

Before taking my interpersonal communications class, I was already aware that some people only engage in conversation for their turn to speak, some merely looked like they’re listening, while others want to dominate the whole conversation. What I was unaware of was how often these things happened. In fact, they happen so often, that they are categorized under the umbrella term of “non-listening behaviors” in Chapter Seven of Interplay: The Process of Interpersonal Communication; I say this to avoid lawsuits, not to sell the book or bore readers.

Ever talk to someone who looks like they’re listening, but you know full well they aren’t? Have you ever not listened but made every effort to look like you were? Go ahead and admit it, some people are super boring. Whether or not you choose to confess to it, this pretending to pay attention is called pseudolistening. Your eyes and ears may be there, but your focus is somewhere far outside of the discussion. People do it more often than they care to admit. Those who say they don’t likely lie more than they care to admit. In addition to focusing on our own thoughts silently, we do it verbally too.

We’ve all spoken to someone who we swear talks to hear the sound of their own voice, and probably showers to see themselves naked. These people either won’t let anyone else talk, or somehow direct the conversation to themselves. I’ve seen someone do this in a writing class and, believe me, it was not fun to listen to or watch. This is known as stage-hogging, people hog the conversation the same way show-offs leave no room on the stage. Based on what I’ve learned, stage-hogging is a general term, and there are multiple forms of conversational narcissism.

I bet that if you’ve lived on this planet and can understand language at even a kindergarten level, you’ve seen people discuss events that they know nothing about or cannot accurately recall. Perhaps you’ve even tried to make it look like you remember something. In interpersonal communications, we were taught that this is called “filling in gaps.” The definition I copied from the study guide described that people “like to think that what they remember makes a whole story. These people manufacture information so that when they re-tell what they listened to, they can give the impression they “got it all.” The message that’s left is actually a distorted (not merely incomplete) version of the real message.” This could be considered as borderline lying, which shows how desperately we want to look like we’re paying attention, but also shows the importance of communication.

Humans are relational beings, as seen in the third tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This section is all about love and belonging in both platonic and romantic relationships. A large part of relationships is communication, which requires listening. Basic conversational etiquette says that it’s rude not to listen, but we engage in nonlistening behavior all the time or at least some of it. Aren’t we all gross hypocrites? To answer my own question, yes. Yes, we are. However, when we make an effort to truly understand what people say to us and not think about ourselves, we can be less gross and less hypocritical. Due to the inherent selfishness of human nature, people will always want to talk about themselves, disengage from other people’s stories and life updates, and god forbid lie to make themselves look better. Even though we may never listen to understand all the time, we can still fake it, which will deepen our relationships and improve our reputations. I mean, that’s what really matters, right?



Adler, R. B., Rosenfeld, L. B., & Proctor, R. F., II. (2013). Interplay: The Process of Interpersonal Communication (12th ed.). NY: Oxford University Press. Chapter 7

2 comments on “Why Do We Listen?

  1. Ken Keating on

    Unbelievably insightful, and very perceptive of the human condition. If only we could take a moment to actually listen to one another.

  2. Susan Sheppard on

    You make many of the same points as other writers about the failure to listen and the epidemic of self-absorption, but you do it with a uniquely honest voice. I enjoyed your essay enormously.


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