The American writer Robert McCloskey said  “ I know that you believe that you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

Think about it. The first reaction would be that it doesn’t make sense and even if it does, it definitely does not apply to me. That is how most people would respond. And the sad fact is that the quotation describes pretty much the universal condition with rare exceptions.

Why don’t we even recognise the problem? It’s pretty simple. We, very rarely, or never, understand what the other person says, but we do not even bother to check if we have understood correctly. If at all there is strong evidence to suggest that we did not understand, it is often disputed by us – we may for instance blame the other person for lying about it, or we may blame him for not communicating it properly – and thus we absolve ourselves of any guilt or need to improve our listening. 

This poor understanding will make sense if we look around us and see the huge level of misunderstandings in every facet of human existence. Whether it is between nations or cultures or even within the same family, we see very high levels of misunderstanding that sours the pitch and makes life difficult for all and becomes a breeding ground for the worst violence and actions that reflect man’s inhumanity to man.

What can be done ?

We are poised at a stage where there is huge scope for remedying the situation. Communication has shrunk the world and broken down barriers that insulated large parts of the world.  We have enough and more opportunities to appreciate and understand the diversities that differentiate our perspectives and values and yet make us members of a single unique species and inhabitant of a unique hospitable planet. So the setting and opportunity is there. What is needed is the will, backed by a realisation that we need more than ever to collaborate to make our collective lives better and that the need for fierce competition required to survive in our jungle existence is behind us.

It has to start at the individual level – you and me. If can learn to listen, our universe will start changing. For the universe is only a function of our understanding. But listening is not easy. It is a skill that needs to be practiced and developed. To listen well, we need to first of all, as Winston Churchill said, “have the courage to sit down and listen.”  We have to stop being judgmental even before the other person has started speaking. We have to get out of the habit of framing our response or repartee even before the other person is half way through. We have to learn to give complete undivided attention to the speaker and understand his world of ideas as he sees it. When it starts happening, you will realize it on your own, for your world will slowly start changing, like never before.