While researching my book What? I discovered that when listening to others, we naturally assume we understand what’s meant and don’t question that assumption. But due to the way sound vibrations enter our ears, we actually only accurately hear some unknowable percentage of what is being said.
Here’s what happens that makes accurate understanding so difficult:
- We only retain words we hear for approximately 3 seconds, and since spoken words have no spaces between them, our brains must also listen for breaks in breath, tone, and rhythm to differentiate words and meaning.
- Throughout our lives, the neural pathways we use when hearing others speak become habituated and normalized, limiting and biasing what we hear as per our comfort and beliefs.
- When listening, our brain automatically and haphazardly deletes incoming ideas that are foreign to our beliefs.
- After deleting the vibrations that don’t match our historic circuits, our brains fail to tell us what’s been deleted.
- Whatever is left after deletions is what we adamantly assume we have heard.
A simple example of this just happened today when I was introduced to someone:
Joe: Hey V. I’d like you to meet my friend Sharon-Drew.
V: Hi Sharon.
SDM: Actually, my first name is Sharon-Drew.
V: Oh. I don’t know anyone who calls themselves by their first name AND last name.
SDM: Neither do I.
V: But you just told me that’s how you refer to yourself!
Because a double first name was foreign to her, her brain used a habituated pathway for ‘name’, deleting both how Joe introduced us and my correction. She exacerbated the problem by then assuming – as per her habituated knowledge about names – I offered first and last name, again ignoring my explanation. She went on to further assume she was right and I was wrong when I corrected her. Curiosity wasn’t an option. She believed what her brain told her, and acted on the assumption that she was ‘right’.
ASSUMPTIONS RESTRICT AUTHENTIC COMMUNICATION
We all do this. Using conventional listening practices, using our normalized subjectivity that we’ve finely honed during our lifetimes, it’s pretty difficult to accurately hear what’s meant without making assumptions; although we prefer to hear accurately, our brains are just set up to routinize and habituate most of what we do and hear – it makes the flow of our daily activities and relationships easy.
But there is a downside: we end up restricting, harming, or diminishing authentic communication, and proceed to self-righteously huff and puff when we believe we’ve heard accurately deeming any correction ‘wrong’.
So: our brain tells us what it wants us to hear and doesn’t tell us what it left out or altered, potentially getting the context, the outcome, the description, or the communication, wrong.
Sometimes we assume the speaker meant something they didn’t mean at all and then act on flawed information. In business it gets costly when, for example, implementations don’t get done accurately, or people are deemed ‘prospects’ and put into the sales pipeline when it could be discovered on the first call that they were never prospects at all.
Assumptions cost us greatly, harming relationships, business success, and health:
- Sellers assume prospects are buyers when they ‘hear’ a ‘need’ that matches their solution and end up wasting a huge amount of time chasing prospects who will never buy;
- Consultants assume they know what a client needs from discussions with a few top decision makers while potentially overlooking some unknown influencers or influences, causing resistance to change when they try to push their outcomes into a system that doesn’t yet know how to change;
- Decision scientists assume they gather accurate data from the people that hired them and discount important data held by employees lower down the management chain, inadvertently skewering the results and making implementation difficult;
- Doctors, lawyers, dentists assume problems that may not be accurate merely because some of the symptoms are familiar, potentially causing harm – especially when these assumptions keep them from finding out the real problems; they also offer important advice that clients/patients don’t heed when the patients themselves assume their own ability to take care of themselves;
- Coaches assume clients mean something they are not really saying or skewering the focus of the conversation, ending up biasing the outcome with inappropriate questions that lead the client away from the real issues that never get resolved;
- Influencers and leaders assume they are ‘heard’ when offering reasons or rational behind behavior change activities, and blame the Other for resisting, ignoring, or sabotaging, when if approached from a Change Facilitation format first, people will be happy to behave in their best interests.
Using normal listening habits we can’t avoid making assumptions. The belief that sharing, pushing, presenting, offering ‘good’ (rational, necessary, tested) information will cause behavior change has proven faulty time and time again, across industries.
LISTEN IN OBSERVER/COACH TO AVOID ASSUMPTIONS
It’s possible to avoid the pitfalls of assumptions and hear what’s being meant by taking the Observer/Coach role (listening dissociatively from the ‘ceiling’ for the metamessage, not the story). From this witness position, it’s actually possible to notice the reality of a situation without most of the biases.
It’s the difference between being in front of a tree and noticing veins on the leaves (listening for content) while failing to notice a fire 2 acres away, vs being on a nearby mountaintop (listening dissociatively for the metamessage) noticing a fire in the forest, but not seeing the veins on the leaves. Both content and metamessage listening are necessary, of course, but at different times in a communication.
I contend we listen first in a dissociative way when new information, a new relationship, collaborative dialogues, or fine data gathering is necessary. Doing so makes it possible to listen in a part of the brain that doesn’t have the habituated neural pathways and filters that our normal listening involves. In other words, we won’t need to make assumptions.
In my book What? there are chapters devoted to explaining how we make the assumptions we make, and how to resolve the problem. It’s an important skill set that we all could use. I don’t know about you, but I personally get so annoyed with myself when I make an assumption that proves wrong, and I lose the possibility of what might have been.
Sharon-Drew Morgen is a breakthrough innovator and original thinker, having developed new paradigms in sales (inventor Buying Facilitation®, listening/communication (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), change management (The How of Change™), coaching, and leadership. She is the author of several books, including the NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell). Sharon-Drew coaches and consults with companies seeking out of the box remedies for congruent, servant-leader-based change in leadership, healthcare, and sales. Her award-winning blog carries original articles with new thinking, weekly. www.sharondrewmorgen.com She can be reached at email@example.com.