“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand. Most people listen with the intent to reply.” ~Stephen R Covey
The other day, I was having a discussion with a friend. I was attempting to make a point, but first I needed to establish the context of my point. Before I could even get to the actual point I was trying to make, she interrupted me and began to dissect the context.
This is a classic example of listening to reply versus to understand. It was as if she was scanning every word I said looking for the opportunity to respond, instead of listening to my full point before responding. Before I knew it, we were off on a tangent and I never even got to my initial point.
In years past, I had always considered this idea of listening to respond as something that only reared up in unhealthy relationships without boundaries. My belief was that for a person to behave in such a way meant that they thought themselves better than me, superior in some way (experience, intelligence, etc.) or that the person was controlling (interrupting to control the flow of conversation back toward themselves).
This particular instance set that notion into a full stop, as this was a person I have a great relationship with. I began to wonder if this behavior is more prevalent than I thought… and even question if I was also culpable. Do I listen to respond when I should be listening to understand?
It can be said that listening is an automatic thing that happens, unless you are hearing impaired. It is simply the picking up of sound being made. Hearing is where we actually pay attention to what the sound is. If you’ve ever zoned out when someone is talking to you, or fallen asleep watching television, you’ll understand what simply listening is. I can hear the sounds, I know that noise is being made, but I can’t tell you any details about the sound. I may know someone is speaking to me, but unable to recall what they said. I may know that I am in a noisy room, but couldn’t tell you who or what the noises are originating from.
Hearing is a conscious decision to listen to the details, so that I know who is speaking, what is being said, what the noises are.
If you are planning your response while the other person is talking, you can’t actually hear the other person. Why? Because at some point you cut off hearing the other person and instead focused on the argument or comment you want to make. As you are formulating your response, you can’t hear what else is being said. In the situation with my friend, I believe this to be true. The reason she couldn’t hear my main point was because she was hung up on the detail that she wanted to respond to.
If we start day dreaming or doing other tasks, it means we are disinterested. If we don’t want to hear what the person is saying we can literally shut down our reception of the information, or we can lean into selective listening/hearing… where we only hear what we want to hear. Management consultant Bryan Golden says: “To make it yet more challenging, even when listening intently, you tend to filter what someone is saying through your own biases. You may assume you know what someone means because you jump to conclusions before they finish talking.”
All of these come down to the same bottom line, bad or poor communication skills.
The more I looked into the topic, the more I realized that we are all complicit in poor communication in some way, shape, or form. Perhaps we would all do well to be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19), then we’d be less apt to be angry.