How often do you listen to people? Almost every day, correct? Great! This is off to a good start.
Now for a related, but completely different question: how often do you listen to understand? That one is a little trickier.
The nature behind each question is completely different. While listening for the sake of repeating what someone just said is easy, listening to understand is much more complicated. You have to listen to comprehend the why, not just the what. This is no small task; in fact, listening to understand can be completely daunting and opposite to our nature. Listening to understand is difficult because of how passionate we are about our own beliefs.
Humanity is inherently passionate, and this passion can be one of the most beautiful things about our species. The art we create, the music we compose, the poetry we recite, the issues we live and die for, all point to the level of passion we experience. Everyone has that one thing that they would do anything for. Big or small, the things we care for define us.
Now, what happens when you engage with someone that doesn’t agree on that special thing that you are passionate about? How can they possibly be so different, so opposite, so fundamentally wrong?
So now you are with an individual that you fundamentally disagree with. Do you: 1). Automatically disengage with them to avoid conflict, 2). Debate them with righteous fervor to correctly inform them or educate them, or 3). Seek to understand why they believe the issue differently from you? Chances are you prefer option 1 or 2, but not option 3. Interestingly enough, the reason why we are more inclined to feel more comfortable choosing option 1 or 2, instead of option 3, can be explained by neurosciences.
New studies in the field of neuroscience show us that political arguments trigger the centers of our brain that promote a flight or fight response. When confronted with facts that pertain to our core ideologies and belief systems, we are hardwired to disregard the other side. We do not listen to their arguments at all, but we instead disregard them because it is difficult to consider that we, and our fundamental beliefs, may be wrong.
Since this is the way we are hardwired, what does it mean for us? In order to listen to understand, we have to actively train our brains to do so. Every day we must consciously make decisions to seek to understand why others believe what they do, rather than just hear their arguments and disengage or “enlighten them”. This is difficult to do, but it is necessary for growth as individuals.
In our previous blog post, The Importance of Conflict, Iron Sharpens Iron, we stated just how important conflict is for our continued growth. Listening to understand someone doesn’t mean you have to change your stance on an issue. All it means is that instead of instantly debating others, we should seek to understand why they believe the things they do. Nothing more. You can still disagree with people after listening to them, while understanding that listening to understand provides the opportunity to truly have conversations that are engaging for both sides. Conversations that are engaging are more productive and promote growth. And, by listening to understand, you are giving yourself the best opportunity to grow.
Let us revert to our initial question: how often do you listen to understand? We hope that you think about this question whenever you are in a setting where you are faced with someone you disagree with. We encourage that you don’t listen just to counter them; instead, listen to understand. Doing so will make the conversation better, and a better conversation discussing the issues you are passionate about, will do you no harm. It will only help you grow.