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 🙂
    -g

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

    • “…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.

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

    • 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.

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

    • 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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