This article is an excerpt from Sharon-Drew Morgen’s new book “Did You Really Say What I Think I Heard?” available for free.
Like most of us, I assume I understand what my communication partner is saying and respond appropriately. I don’t think about it; I just do it. I don’t realize anything is wrong until it’s too late. But why do I make that assumption? I was never taught how to hear what others meant to convey.
From kindergarten through university, there are no programs taught on how to accurately hear what others intend to convey or how to make adjustments if there is a breakdown. Current Active Listening models don’t go far enough into the problems of misinterpretation: how, exactly, do our brains make it so difficult for us to avoid biasing what it hears? And what’s the cost to us in terms of relationships, creativity, and corporate success?
WHAT IS LISTENING?
Our listening skills seem to be largely intuitive: we instinctively know how to listen to music and to listen carefully when getting directions to a wedding. But sometimes we mishear or misinterpret what someone said. Or interpret something incorrectly and adamantly believe we are correct. Or lose a client or friend because we’ve not really heard their underlying message. Sometimes we listen for the wrong thing, or listen only to a part of the message.
Do we even know what listening is? We all recognize it as a core communication skill – core to our lives, our relationships, our ability to earn a living and share ideas and feelings. But how do we do it? And how do we do it right – and know when we are doing it wrong? Who’s to blame when we get it wrong? Are there skills that would enable effective listening in every conversation?
My broad interests and unique professional life have brought me in contact with an extensive range of people and situations. Along the way I’ve had thousands of successful conversations with people from many walks of life and in 63 countries. The conversations I found frustrating were my communication partner’s fault. Or so I’d like to think.
My lifelong curiosity with listening was piqued to the point of finally writing this book when reflecting on a seemingly simple conversation I heard at the tail end of a meditation retreat:
Transportation Guy: “You can either leave your luggage near the back of the go-cart and we’ll take it down the hill for you, or you can bring it down yourself.”
Woman: “Where should I leave it if I do it myself?”
Transportation Guy: “Just put it in your car.”
Woman: “No… Just tell me where I can leave it off. I want to walk it down myself when I go to the dining room.”
Transportation Guy: “Just put it in your car. I don’t know why you’re not understanding me. Just. Walk. It. Down. And. Put. It. In. Your. Car.”
A simple exchange. Simple words, spoken clearly. Words with universally recognized definitions. Yet those two folks managed to confound and confuse each other, and instead of asking for clarity they assumed the other was being obtuse.
Indeed, it sounded like they were having two different conversations, each with unique assumptions: the man assumed everyone had a car; the woman assumed there was a specific space set aside for suitcases.
The missing piece, of course, was that the woman was being picked up by a friend and didn’t have a car. The transportation guy didn’t ask for the missing piece and the woman didn’t offer it. When they didn’t get the responses they sought, they each got exasperated by the other’s intractability and, most interesting to me, were unable to get curious when confused. Two sets of assumptions, reference points, and world views using the same language. And when the communication broke down both thought they were right.
WHY WE MISUNDERSTAND
Because we filter out or fabricate so much of what is being said, we merely hear what our brains want us to hear and ignore, misunderstand, or forget the rest. And then we formulate our responses as if our assumptions were true. Our communications are designed merely to convey our internal assumptions, and how people hear us are based on their internal assumptions.
So it merely seems like we are having conversations. We are not; we are just assuming what we hear means something, leaping to false conclusions based on what our brains choose, and blaming the other person when the communication falters. Surprising we don’t have more misunderstandings than we do.
How humbling to realize that we limit our entire lives – our spouse, friends, work, neighborhood, hobbies – by what our brains are comfortable hearing. We are even held back or elevated in our jobs depending on our ability to communicate across contexts. Our listening skills actually determine our life path. And we never realize how limited our choices are.
Would it be best for us to communicate only with those we already know? Seems the odds of us truly hearing and being heard are slim otherwise: unless the speaker’s intent, shared data, history and beliefs are so similar to ours as to share commonality, the odds of understanding another’s intent – and hence what they are really trying to tell us – are small.
But make no mistake: the way we listen works well-enough. We’ve constructed worlds in which we rarely run into situations that might confound us, and when we do we have an easy out: blame the other person.
What if it’s possible to have choice? In Did You Really Say What I Think I Heard, I break down filters, biases, assumptions and communication patterns to enable every reader to truly hear what their Communication Partner intends them to hear, diminish misinterpretation, and expand creativity, leadership, and management.