How Our Intelligence Makes Us Bad Listeners

The more intel­li­gent we are, the more we (think) we under­stand peo­ple. The more we are able to under­stand what they say. The more we are able to antic­i­pate what they are going to say. The more we are likely to stop lis­ten­ing because we have not only fig­ured out what they are going to say, we have already for­mu­lated our response preemptively.

This is a trap I some­times find myself falling into, even sev­eral years after try­ing to imbibe Seek First To Under­stand, Then To Be Under­stood.

There are usu­ally four lev­els of listening:

  • ignor­ing
  • pre­tend­ing
  • selec­tive listening
  • atten­tive listening

What most of us fail to do on a reg­u­lar basis is the high­est form of lis­ten­ing – empa­thetic listening.

Even after study­ing about empa­thetic lis­ten­ing as the pil­lar of human com­mu­ni­ca­tion, we some­times stray away from it. The prob­lem is often our intelligence.

Our intel­li­gence dic­tates that com­mu­ni­ca­tion is intended for com­pre­hen­sion. In real­ity, most com­mu­ni­ca­tion in close rela­tion­ships is intended to con­vey emotion.

Our intel­li­gence, work­ing like an over­clocked CPU, becomes hyper­ac­tive in antic­i­pat­ing what oth­ers are say­ing, rel­ishes the dis­cov­ery of our antic­i­pa­tion prov­ing cor­rect, gets high in nar­cis­sis­tic self-approval while the resid­ual part of our brain spits out our already for­mu­lated response. By this time, our intel­li­gence is already antic­i­pat­ing prob­a­ble responses to what we have spit out, and ready­ing our responses to it.

Intel­li­gence is often lethal to empathy.

There is a higher intel­li­gence that can help us iden­tify sit­u­a­tions where com­mu­ni­ca­tion is not intended for com­pre­hen­sion but to con­vey emo­tion. There is a higher intel­li­gence in under­stand­ing that com­pre­hen­sion con­sti­tutes only 10% of the com­mu­ni­ca­tion; 30% of it is in the tone, 60% of it is in the body lan­guage. Our intel­li­gence can cause myopia in focus­ing on that 10% of ver­bal communication.

We need to teach our intel­li­gence to under­stand that it can be a very inef­fec­tive tool for human com­mu­ni­ca­tion, unless its pow­ers are har­nessed not for com­pre­hen­sion but for more empathy.

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  • Gauri

    Spot on. It’s the clas­sic “Most peo­ple lis­ten with the inten­tion to reply rather than to under­stand” trap. I’ve told friends from IIT/Stanford and the likes on sev­eral occa­sions that their intel­li­gence gets in the way of them under­stand­ing what under­stand­ing really is. Remote as it may sound, this is also the root of why athe­ists aim­lessly vocal about their athe­ism (as opposed to gen­uinely edu­cat­ing an audi­ence) sound cog­ni­tive but imbe­cile, instead of ratio­nal and empa­thetic.
    That said, there are folks out there who have a very well-developed right brain and emo­tional intel­li­gence to com­ple­ment (or should I say in spite of) an extreme-right IQ. These are peo­ple who watch qui­etly even when they know the right answer.
    Thank you for writ­ing this :)

    (As an aside, intel­li­gence is over­rated. It’s a fine asset to have, but it’s still over­rated; it really is.)

    • Mahen­dra

      …their intel­li­gence gets in the way of them under­stand­ing what under­stand­ing really is“
      This does not sound remote, this is what the post is about :)

      I am tired of these athe­ists you describe 😉 Thank­fully, I think my life is far removed from those ear­lier days of hav­ing to con­front the atheist/believer debate.

      Yes, there are folks out there. “They watch qui­etly, even when they know the right answer.” These are the folks who watch qui­etly, but have An Unquiet Mind.

      Thank you for read­ing and com­ment­ing. Your com­ments are pre­cious, as always.

  • Kuldeep Bhatt

    Agreed ! Infact it’s too tough to cre­ate and update a con­cur­rent multi thread for each process within our con­scious mind !

    • Mahen­dra

      Thanks. The trick is *not* to cre­ate multi-threads, and have only one to listen! :)

  • Atul Sab­nis

    Lovely post. That para­graph where you describe the “mechan­ics” of how we antic­i­pa­tion works, is spot on. If you find your­self often com­plet­ing sen­tences for oth­ers — that’s a good indi­ca­tor of your intel­li­gence and (impa­tience, there­fore) get­ting in the way of listening.

    • Mahen­dra

      Thank you. After “Tele­scopes” in April, I’m happy to have a post where you comment! :)

    • Mahen­dra

      From “Tele­scopes”: Each of these human beings is a tele­scope, if only one were will­ing to watch through the eye­piece. The eye­piece, in this case, is the human abil­ity to lis­ten, which we most often abuse — or in other words, don’t use at all.

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