Our Most Undeveloped Communication Skills

When we think about communicating, most of us probably think about talking.  Entire courses, not to mention degrees, are devoted to this topic, and over the years I have conducted my fair share of them.  But if I am honest, I will admit that the weakest of all my communication skills is not in the giving of information, the talking, but in the listening.


It’s not that I am uninterested in what others are saying.  It’s that my brain picks up on an idea they express, and immediately begins to formulate a reply.  Steven Covey had it right when he wrote: “Listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to reply.”  Had I followed that it would have saved me considerable grief on a number of occasions.


When I listen to others, my brain’s default position seems to be “Yeah, but” and I immediately see the other side of what they are talking about.  I try strenuously to avoid the types of topics that have no answer (which team is better, Flames or the Oilers?) or which can only be answered in the future (Who do you think is going to win the election?), and while I would hope that I am not contentious for the sake of mere disagreement, it is true, that more often than not, when I hear a criticism about something, my first thought is to take a different point of view, to provide an alternate view of reality.


I know, from an intellectual point of view at any rate, that you do not change someone’s opinions by starting off by disagreeing with what they have just said.  But rather than just hearing the person out, inquiring as to how they arrived at that opinion, probing for deeper meaning, I pop in with an alternative view of reality.


Why is that?  I suspect there are a number of reasons (if not just out and out excuses).  Being pretty highly A.D.D. there is a corresponding lack of filter, so thoughts often come out verbally before they are processed cognitively.  This is rarely a good thing.


Next, I really do see the world as a collection of possibilities rather than as an investigation of a single cause and effect.  X causes Y.  Does it?  Does it always?  What about the situations where Z was the result?  While this can be a useful thinking process, and help to guard against premature conclusions, it can also be disruptive and irritating.


My mission in life, as I have “mottoed” it, is “I make people smarter”.  This positions me as a teacher but all teachers need to be aware that the flip, critical side of teaching, is learning.  If one is always teaching, then when does the learning occur?  It’s like trying to have a coin with only one side.  This over dependence (and perhaps definition of myself) by only one role is self-limiting.  It probably also appears arrogant.


Another reason for not listening, at least insofar as I am concerned, is that I find some of what passes as conversation to be, well, to be blunt about it, trivial and boring, or uninformed.  Or, as Yule Brynner in The King and I famously said: “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera”.  Of course, one’s person’s boredom is another’s passion, but what does one do when an otherwise intelligent person claims that vaccinations cause autism, or that global warming is a hoax?


Finally, and I think I have this in common with many others – I stop listening whenever I don’t want to hear what the other person is saying, often because the information is hurtful, disconcerting, or disconfirming – it presents me in a way that I don’t like or in a way which is not how I see myself. “Whadda ya mean I was rude?  I was just telling it like it is!”


The barriers to listening are many, and if we truly want to become better listeners we need to examine ourselves and see which ones affect us.


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