How To Listen To Hear What’s Intended

This article is an excerpt from Sharon-Drew Morgen’s new book What? Did You Really Say What I Think I Heard? 

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?




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.


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 What? 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.

Copyright 2013 Sharon-Drew Morgen


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Sharon-Drew Morgen is the NYTimes Business Bestselling author of Selling with Integrity and 7 books how buyers buy. She is the developer of Buying Facilitation® a decision facilitation model used with sales to help buyers facilitate pre-sales buying decision issues. She is a sales visionary who coined the terms Helping Buyers Buy, Buy Cycle, Buying Decision Patterns, Buy Path in 1985, and has been working with sales/marketing for 30 years to influence buying decisions.

More recently, Morgen is the author of What? Did you really say what I think I heard? in which she has coded how we can hear others without bias or misunderstanding, and why there is a gap between what’s said and what’s heard. She is a trainer, consultant, speaker, and inventor, interested in integrity in all business communication. Her learning tools can be purchased:

She can be reached at 512 771 1117.


26 thoughts on “How To Listen To Hear What’s Intended”

  1. Pingback: ASSESSMENT: HOW MUCH DO YOU SUCK AT LISTENING? | Sharon-Drew Morgen

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  3. Steven Covey touched briefly on this in 7 Habits when he talked about paradigms. I also just recently learned a psychological phenomenon called Fundamental Attribution Error. While the attribution error may not be entirely appropriate for this discussion, it does present a phenomenon that I think DOES inhibit our ability to really listen…we think our interpretation is accurate. The problem with this is that our interpretation is largely from our own internal experiences, that we might wrongfully attribute to what is actually being said.

    Interestingly enough, I was literally, today, just talking to a peer about one of the best ways to engage, and make sure you are truly listening, is to use the Sharon-Drew Morgen style of questioning and conversation. I think it gives reason to pause and really comprehend, beyond our own preconceived notions, what is actually being said.

    Cannot wait for this book to land!

    1. Sharon-Drew Morgen

      Thanks, Vincent. And so it is: the woman who’s style of communication you like is the same person who is writing a book on how to hear what’s intended 🙂
      Just fyi, my decision facilitation material (used in sales, but a generic model per se) is comprised of decision sequences as per how decisions and change happens systemically, and a new form of question I’ve developed that uses brain function to help the Other recognize the belief-based criteria they must address in order to enable change without internal disruption.
      Take a look at Dirty Little Secrets – I wrote a book about it. go to and there are 2 free chapters.
      You’re right about our interpretation. It’s actually virtually physiologically impossible for us to hear others without bias. In my book (and in my decision facilitation material) I offer the tools to listen without bias.

  4. Sharon-Drew Morgen

    You’re the best. It is sad that I have had to struggle in the sales field for 26 (count ’em) years to get sellers to understand the difference between how to sell (which they all do really well) and how buyers buy – two different things as you know. What’s so mystifying is that using BF we get, on average, about 800% increase over sales. And I just advocate ADDING BF to their sales skills, not even subtracting anything except the frustration and wasted effort. Amazing. It’s like I’m in a boat with a life preserver next to a drowning man, trying to get him to hang on and live, and he’s saying (as he drowns) ‘But I really need to learn how to swim!’ Mystifying. Anyway, take a look at I’m trying to leave the training end of the business and just concentrate on keynotes. Any thoughts?

    1. I have a lot of thoughts. But I can’t say them in full publicly because I might offend an entire profession or two.

      Sales leadership is flawed. Plain and simple. They think they are in control of the buy. Not so. The buyer is in control of the buyer.

      Your solution comes as close to true alignment with your buyer as there exists in the market place. But it is fairly deep. Takes a mind shift…or a mind at all.

      People in sales just can’t rap their minds around the concept of facilitating a buy, vs, jamming a product down someone’s throat.

      In today’s environment, more than ever before, the buyer has control. The dude you reference that doesn’t want the life raft, just add a steel ball and chain to their waste. Its a reflection of their ignorance weighing them down deeper and deeper. For some, it will be too late.

      For others, they can and should change, but as you are so good at talking about, change is not easy.

      Fools most of them. Misguided and pig headed. They create crappy benchmarks to measure their own performance and NEVER give any thought to the fact that their benchmark is too low.

      Most survive on luck, not skill. They have no clue why they make quota. They just hope and prey they are working for the right company with the right product, so the product sells itself.

      They dont want to learn your way. Because they just want to get lucky and make more money.

      Sadly, as I experienced myself, your “way”, even from just reading your book, is the only real pot of gold, if we believe the pot of gold is something we can have on purpose.

      The rest is just bullshit and blind luck.

      No offense to the rest, but snap doesnt work as well as buy.

  5. Sharon-Drew Morgen

    I have developed different ways and amounts to learn. But don’t forget that the sales model was only designed to sell solutions – and even then, in easier times. There has never been a capability to facilitate the behind-the-scenes change issues buyers must address. And unfortunately (or fortunately) I’m the only person who has ever developed a model to do this.
    Did you notice I called you and left a message?

    1. I did. I won’t be able to call today.

      That said, I am not in the sales training game. I just find your way to be the most effective.

      I feel bad that the rest of the world hasn’t made the shift necessary to see the value on a larger scale. They are missing out.

      I have your number, I appreciate the call, and will call you back down the road.

      Thanks for writing your books. Im a fan.

  6. Sharon-Drew Morgen

    You are making a few assumptions: 1. I called merely to say thank you, with my voice rather than writing; 2. my material has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with sales, and in some of my books/articles is used in the sales field. my material is a decision facilitation/change management model that is used by coaches, managers, employers, dentists, lawyers, and all facilitators. It’s used in all communication, collaboration, and negotiation. my material facilitates change and buy-in, at the unconscious level. hope that clears up the misconception re sales.
    Anyway, thanks! I appreciate your support. If there is anything I can do to serve you, I guess I’ll offer it here 🙂

  7. Excellent excerpt Sharon-Drew, can’t wait to read it and begin to integrate it to what I’m learning from you already.

    1. Sharon-Drew Morgen

      You’re such a good student. I love that you’re so eager and willing to add new material. I can’t wait to teach you how to listen for systems, as it will open your world! One step at a time 🙂

          1. Sharon-Drew Morgen

            Maybe let your followers on fb know how much you are learning and what a difference it’s making. maybe I can get others to begin the learning process. thanks in advance..

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  10. Fantastic to finally see something documented that we all need to understand and put into practice! Listening skills could easily be a module in a sales course. However it’s not a quick fix but a slightly longer journey – Thanks for your input – David

    1. Sharon-Drew Morgen

      David: I actually have a new book that I’m releasing for free in a few weeks. Title: What? Did you really say what I think I heard? I took the book out of the clutches of AMACOM who wanted a mainstream book (why they would want me to write a mainstream book is a different topic). maybe we can put our heads together and figure out a way to 1. help the book get out (I need to widen my audience, hence no barriers to entry); 2. help create modules for the sales profession. And, btw, I do not use the word ‘listening’ in the book; there is an assumption that ‘listening’ means Active Listening; so the book talks about how we can hear others without bias or misunderstanding. My direct email is Thanks david.

  11. Pingback: Assessment: How Much Do You Suck At Listening? –

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