Stephen R. Covey, an American author, once wrote, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” I think he’s absolutely right, but perhaps not for the reason you may think. I don’t think it’s because we are desperate to deliver a reply. Rather, I believe it is because we fear that if we do not reply we may be forced to comply.
This may not be true globally, but here in America, where I grew up, young people were often admonished to: “listen to your parents!” or “listen to you teachers!” or “listen to your preachers and ministers!” The older folk who were handing down these instructions were just doing their best to see that we grew up into good, productive members of society.
Of course, they weren’t actually telling us to “listen” to the authority figures around us, they were telling us to “obey” them.
As adults, it’s no longer necessary that we comply with everything we hear from those around us, but I fear that it has been hard wired into us since childhood to be wary of listening to others, especially those who disagree with us. If we do not immediately deliver a well thought out rebuttal, we fear we may be implicitly agreeing with their world view, which could have serious ramifications for our personal freedom.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we actually believe that we are giving up our personal freedom every time we fail to engage in verbal self defense. But I do think most people are predisposed to think carefully about how they can establish and defend their position, should the need arise. When they do this, they are unable to really hear and understand the other person and this leads to all sorts of problems.
I believe this is more prevalent in democracies because any of our neighbors could be elected to public office one day and their ideas could become the law of the land. In a democracy, our government is built upon the ideas of those we elect and we can elect anyone we like. Can we afford to allow those who think differently to continue on under the mistaken assumption that their ideas will not be challenged? If we do not rebut are we not giving away our freedom?
This is a very common attitude in America, where our freedom of speech isn’t just the first privilege protected by our Bill of Rights, but has also become a civic duty. Sure, money still talks in this country, but in an environment where corporations have the same right to speak up and be heard by politicians as individual citizens, an activist mindset has become a priority for those intent on preserving what they consider to be a free society.
Of course, most people don’t think this through when they come into contact with someone who thinks differently. It’s buried deep in our subconscious by years of conditioning. We hear an idea that we do not agree with and our mental machinery comes online. We begin to formulate our response out of self preservation. Even if we care for or respect the speaker, we resist the urge to “listen” to them in favor of our own free will.
Instead of ensuring our freedom, failure to really listen to those around us traps us in a stagnant past that limits our ability to respond effectively to a changing world. How can we rectify this situation? Here are some ideas to consider:
- Quit telling young people to listen to authority figures when you mean comply with their instructions. Young people must comply, but don’t lead them to equate listening with compliance.
- Create a curriculum for secondary schools that teaches active listening to children. Be sure to explain that understanding an opposing viewpoint does not imply acceptance of that position nor does it have any impact on a person’s freedom to oppose it.
- Adopt a framework for problem solving that involves a phase devoted to active listening. Put this at the very beginning of the process, well away from the actual decision making to reduce the fear that opposing views will lead to a negative outcome for any party.
- Encourage elected officials to direct their staff to write position papers on opposing viewpoints to show that they have actually listened to those who disagree with them.
Ideas are powerful things, especially in a free society. When we learn that hearing opposing viewpoints actually makes us better equipped to make good decisions and does not require us to comply with ideas we disagree with, we will find more people actually listening to those around them and hearing what they have to say.