Are You Listening Or Just Reloading?

I think in our rush to argue and dissent these days, we have lost the art of listening. By that, I mean listening to truly understand the other person, not listening to agree or disagree, but simply listening to understand.

There is an old Buddhist saying that goes something like: "Are you listening, or just preparing to speak." Recently, I heard someone from Europe speak on the subject of communication in America. He said this: "Americans aren't listening, they're just reloading." Ouch! That certainly does describe one kind of communication that seems to be increasingly popular these days.

Have you ever been the victim of someone who is good at "reloading," someone who has been through one of those "effective listening" or "effective communications" courses? You know who I mean - they can make eye contact, lean forward, toss in the occasional "I see" and make every outward appearance of actually being attentive. The really good ones can also paraphrase or even repeat verbatim what is that you have to say.

I am not referring to the person who is seeking to listen and to paraphrase before carrying on themselves; rather, I am thinking about the person who has become highly skilled at what I call "malicious listening." The malicious listener has mastered the art of listening with a not-so-hidden motive. This person listens to prove you wrong and uses your own words to make their case. They can quote you ("you said . . . .") and quickly follow with a retort, rejoinder, or snide comment about how wrong you are. Indeed, they are skillful at "reloading."

The only problem with this kind of listening is that very little actual listening actually takes place. Surely you have had the experience of someone who can repeat back what you said and completely miss the message. They can be incredibly adept at using your words against you. They may hear your words, but they surely don't hear you.

The real point of listening has little to do with what words the other person used, and everything to do with what the underlying message or meaning might be. Listening to understand is quite different from listening to prove a point, pick a fight, or win an argument. "Yeah, but you said" is a common rejoinder of the one who listens to argue.

Back in my university days, I recall reading something by Paul Tillich, the philosopher and theologian who wrote: "The first duty of love is to listen." More recently, a teacher of mine put it this way: "listening is one of the highest forms of caring." Imagine what a conversation or even a disagreement might be like if based on loving and caring - at least caring enough to truly understand the other person.

There's an old cliché that says all relationship problems are really communication problems. It has also been reframed as all business problems are really communication problems. The problem with communication problems is that way too many people think communication means they need to say more.

Effective communications courses abound each attempting to improve this apparently difficult thing to do - to communicate. We've all heard the drill: listen first, speak second; paraphrase before adding your own thoughts; don't interrupt. And very little of this makes any apparent difference.

I must admit that before I really understood the problem, I, too, spent a lot of time trying to teach people all the various active listening skills from unconditional positive regard over to how to paraphrase and seek mutual understanding.

As you are probably sensing, I don't think the problem lies in various listening skills. However, it has certainly been my experience that people don't know how to listen very well.

I suspect that part of the listening problem stems from how much emphasis we place in school as well as in business on the ability to make a point, to advocate a point of view, to argue for a position. If we have been trained in the art of making a strong case for our point of view, many of us then may have learned to listen not so much to understand the other as to be able to offer a counter argument.

There is quite a big difference between conversing with someone who is listening to understand what you have to say and someone who is listening to argue. We have all experienced the person who listens solely for the purpose of countering whatever you have to say, even without having a point of their own to offer. For these folks, the main point of conversation isn't even about a good debate (my point is stronger and more well thought out than yours); it is more about discrediting the other, finding holes in their logic, or otherwise appearing superior through the ability to find fault.

The next time you find yourself in conversation with a friend, a business colleague or someone back home, try listening without forming any responses while the other person speaks. If you need to think of anything to say, try thinking of a question that encourages the person to share with you more of their thoughts on the subject, and, in particular, what the underlying meaning or value might be. A meaning or values-based discussion can be quite a bit more illuminating than one based on quick retorts and the ability to pin the other person down with their own words.

If you care for the other person, do your best to demonstrate that caring by your ability to understand what they mean, not just what they are saying.

Let me leave you with three more of my favorite quotes on listening:

"It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen."
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes

"A good listener tries to understand what the other person is saying. In the end he may disagree sharply, but because he disagrees, he wants to know exactly what it is he is disagreeing with."
-- Kenneth A. Wells

"Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen."
-- Winston Churchill

Care to offer your thoughts? I'll listen!

Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email and let me know how this strikes you.


Russell Bishop is an Educational Psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant, based in Santa Barbara California. You can find out more about Russell at Contact Russell by email at: Russell (at)


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Original Published Date: 
July 18, 2010