Last Saturday at the Royal Medieval Faire, we reconnected with the friend we made there last year. At one point throughout our many conversations (he spent much of the day at our tent) he mentioned that, having read last year’s blog in which he featured, he had been impressed with how I had actually listened to what he’d said.
He went on to explain how he finds that people are frequently misunderstanding, misrepresenting, and misquoting things he’s said (that’s a lot of missing). Yet, he felt that my recollection of what he’d said, and the meaning of it, to be quite accurate.
Now, there’s every possibility that I could have brushed this off as a unique occurrence, except that this wasn’t the first time I’d had something like this said to me. Within the last few months, Colleen has expressed something very similar to me. She has informed me that she has gotten frustrated conversing with other people because of how often she needs to explain herself several times before she is understood. She feels like people don’t actually listen.
Having heard this, I could recall experiencing the same thing on occasion, and it brought to mind a quote I’d come across some time ago. “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” (Stephen R. Covey, I believe) It is a most insightful quote and, I fear, very accurate.
Why is this, though? Why do people put more of an emphasis on replying to what is said than they do on understanding what is said? I suspect that a big part is that there is an assumption that they have understood. When we hear something said, we immediately form an impression of the speaker’s meaning, and we assume that first impression is correct. And, if we are assuming we are correct, why would we bother putting in the extra thought process to examine what we heard for additional meanings? It is much easier to simply stick with the assumption.
To that we must add that nasty piece of human existence called ‘social expectation’. Silence is often considered awkward, and as such it must be avoided. Therefore, while conversing, it is important to avoid silences by filling them. This means replying as fast as possible, thus relying upon that initial assumption. On top of that, it is assumed in our society that people who think faster are more intelligent, meaning that people who respond faster must be more intelligent.
If you have any doubts about our social expectations, just imagine a public speaker. When they present what they have prepared, they come across well, but what happens when they are asked questions they aren’t prepared for? They respond right away – and sometimes they answer the question incorrectly and get called out on it later, but all that matters in that moment is that they have an answer. How would your opinion of that public speaker change if, when put on the spot, they fell silent? Or pulled out their phone for a quick Google search to make sure their facts were correct?
So, the speed at which we reply is of utmost importance to us. However, there is one other key factor in people not listening properly: the imprecision of language. Language is a way of expressing thought, but thoughts are often too complicated to be encompassed by language. Speaking (or writing) is like trying to draw a three-dimensional scene on a two-dimensional piece of paper. You can give an impression of what you’re trying to draw, but it does not actually re-create what it is you’re seeing. Likewise, two-dimensional words can only hint at the extra dimensions contained within the thought process behind them. Even worse, everyone has their own personal interpretation of the meaning of words – slight differences in interpreted meaning can completely alter understanding what someone is trying to communicate.
So, my trick to actually listening? Stop to consider what was said before replying. Allow those silences to exist while you replay the sentences in your head. But don’t just try to understand the words, try to understand the intent behind them. The better you know a person, the easier it is to understand how they think – use that decipher the true meaning of what they said.
Accurate communication is incredibly important. Misunderstanding is what leads to a majority of conflicts – pausing to make sure you understand correctly is worth it in the long run.
Plus, it feels awesome when people come along and tell you how great you are at listening.
Click here to find the charity anthology containing a couple of my short stories.