Sunday, January 12, 2014

Is Technology Making Us Better Communicators?

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” This quote is attributed to Stephen Covey (and multi-million dollar training programme), the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change.
Though, to be honest, I’ve always had a feeling that this concept has been around for longer than Covey, and goes way beyond just listening to include how we read words on a page, especially now in the world of social media, and how we see things as well.
Covey believed that “communication is the most important skill in life. You spend years learning how to read and write, and years learning how to speak. But what about listening? What training have you had that enables you to listen so you really, deeply understand another human being?”
But there are many detractors to Covey’s thinking and as one critic, Art Petty, mentions “listening with intent isn’t a technique, it’s a personal value backed by behaviors that cause us to shift from the movie about ourselves running in our own minds to focusing on the movie or picture being created by another.”
Covey’s underlying premise is that “if you're like most people, you probably seek first to be understood; you want to get your point across. And in doing so, you may ignore the other person completely, pretend that you're listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely. So why does this happen?
Because most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. You listen to yourself as you prepare in your mind what you are going to say, the questions you are going to ask, etc. You filter everything you hear through your life experiences, your frame of reference. You check what you hear against your autobiography and see how it measures up. And consequently, you decide prematurely what the other person means before he/she finishes communicating. Do any of the following sound familiar?”
This desire to respond has gone way beyond listening and can be seen on a daily basis in social media, like on LinkedIn, Twitter, etc – where many people make comments without first trying to understand the topic under debate and/or understand the comments already made. They just want to make a point – any point – as long as it’s their point. 
There is a danger for society with this behaviour as it’s encouraging people to focus on their ‘intent to reply’ rather than their desire to first understand – and this potential ‘shift’ in behaviour can have very serious consequences for civilization in general, both from a business and personal perspective – as how we engage with others has a significant impact on the ability to build relationships and trust. 
One of the key points in Covey’s thinking is that we must first spend the time trying to understand the other person or people – since if we don’t, what follows has no synergy to what is going on either in the verbal or written communication.
History is full of disasters built on misunderstanding - but it doesn't have to stay that way, since in today's modern world we have the tools and the ability/intelligence to communicate much faster and more effectively than ever before.
So it does come down to desire, personal values and personal choices – do we want to engage in meaningful conversations where we first really want to understand the debate, and the thoughts behind it and then contribute to it in a meaningful manner – or do we just want to be heard – hoping that someone somewhere will like what we have to say.
There is a real danger with social media that we will forget how to listen, read and see things with a real intent and desire to understand – often learning something in the process; and that we will instead become people who just want to reply, regardless of how irrelevant that reply might be – and in the process fail to learn ourselves.

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