I recently got an email from a subscriber complaining that although he’d read and learned a ton from my articles over the years, he was having trouble reading them on his computer and would I please put them up on my blog. (They’re up.)
When I read the email, I heard him from my own filters. At the time it sounded like he was telling me what to do and being disrespectful. My inner response: “Wait, what?! Why email me before checking? They’re already there! And if you loved my ideas why don’t you want to buy the learning tools that go with them?? And why would you contact me to tell me what I’ve done wrong when you’ve never even thanked me?”?
I didn’t say all that, naturally. Instead I wrote suggesting he check my site and suggested he print it out to possibly resolve his reading problem. He replied by offering names of other bloggers that do it his way (He STILL didn’t check! And I’m STILL wrong!) and that he was merely trying to help (Help what? Who?) so why didn’t I appreciate his efforts (To do what?), and (the best one): why was I getting defensive when he was offering me valuable advice (Valuable for who?).
Two people hearing what they heard, entering a dialogue with unique expectations, subjective filters and biases, and each some distance from the truth.
SUBJECTIVE FILTERS CAUSE A TRANSLATION PROBLEM
When a misunderstanding occurs Speakers assume they are in the ‘right’ because they ‘said it clearly’, and believe their communication partner is just ‘not listening’; Listeners assume what they think they hear is accurate and when there’s a problem, assume it’s the Speaker’s fault for ‘not saying it clearly’.
But both are wrong: Speakers erroneously think that because they choose what seem like the ‘right’ words to impart their message accurately, Listeners should understand exactly what they mean/intend. But it’s not possible, and it’s not a ‘listening’ problem, or a problem of intent, skill, or concentration. It’s a translation problem caused by the brain’s wiring.
As Listeners we can certainly hear the words spoken. But when it comes to interpreting them, we’re at the mercy of how our subjective listening filters translate the words we hear. Indeed, we only grasp our own unconscious translation of what’s been said, regardless of how disparate it is from the message intended.
My book What? Did you really say what I think I heard? breaks down how our subjective filters, normalized thinking patterns, and habituated neural pathways determine what we hear Others say. And as I learned while writing, it’s not our fault when we get it wrong.
Stay tuned for my new book coming out in September: HOW? Generating new neural circuits for learning, behavior change, and decision making.
WE CAN’T UNDERSTAND ACCURATELY
The problem is neither Speaker or Listener can get it right. And unfortunately, both assume the Other has heard accurately:
- Speakers assume they’ve accurately communicated their ideas to Listeners. But they’re not aware of the translation process going on in the Listener’s brain as the sound vibrations from their ‘words’ (meaningless puffs of air, unfortunately) get ‘randomly’ translated into some sort of meaning. From the Speaker’s side, they’re turning their ideas/thoughts into spoken words that ‘should be’ understood.
- Listeners have an unconscious issue to deal with. They automatically assume that what they ‘heard’ is what was intended. But in fact, it’s only X% accurate. What we hear is wholly dependent upon the number of filters and biases that mangle parts of the incoming sound vibrations; and the ‘similar-enough’ circuits the vibrations ultimately get sent to. [Note: I never figured out what ‘similar-enough’ means; there are 100 Trillion synapses to choose from!]
So net net, we hear according to our history, according to the existing neural circuits that translate incoming ‘words’ into meaning unique to us, regardless of how different from what the Speaker intended. And it’s all electrochemical, mechanical, and meaningless. Until our brain translates it for us.
What a Speaker intends is often not what a Listener’s brain translates. And it’s no one’s fault: no one intends mishear or misunderstand; everyone intends to choose words that can be easily understood; most of us pay attention. But our brain is in charge.
WHAT’S IN OUR WAY
Let me name just a few things that keep us from hearing accurately:
Bias: There are hundreds of types of bias, assumptions, filters, triggers, and habits that keep us congruent by making sure what we hear perpetuates our lifelong conditioning. Our brain actually deletes out signals! And Oops! Forgets to tell us.
Even if we try hard to hear the exact words spoken (if we write down each word as it’s spoken – we remember words spoken for about 3 seconds), knowing the words does NOT denote accuracy: our brains interpret incoming words idiosyncratically regardless of the meaning/intent behind the spoken words.
The story gets worse. Not only do we unwittingly interpret what’s been said according to our own beliefs and biases, we have no idea of the reality: we might hear ABL when the Speaker actually said/meant ABC and we have no way of knowing that our brains deleted D,E,F,G,H,I,J,K discarding elements of ideas, meaning, etc. in its search for compatibility.
We then, still unconsciously, assign a unique meaning to whatever remains according to compatibility (or incompatibility) and connections with our existing beliefs and history of similar ideas.
My goodness. How do we even understand each other? Hint: it’s why we live near folks we understand and agree with, work with folks we understand and agree with, and marry folks who are similar. Our lives are ruled by the ways our brain translates.
WHO GETS HURT
Here are some of the areas particularly affected by the way our brains translate what they hear:
Questions to gather information: when Speakers seek answers to achieve goals or gather data (i.e. sellers, doctors, coaches, influencers, parents, etc.) they can’t help but pose biased questions according to their need to know, and sometimes restrict the full landscape of possibility to a confined data set. So Listeners end up potentially offering ‘bad’ or incomplete data that is mistaken for Truth. It’s not bad data, exactly: Listeners brains get triggered to memory channels according to the biases inherent in the questions, offering Speakers some unknown/unknowable portion of reality.
Compounded with the natural unconscious translation process Listeners incur, most exchanges suffer some degree of restriction due to the biases in a Speaker’s questions. [Note: I’ve invented Facilitative Questions that are systemic, unbiased, directional, leading Listeners to specific neural circuits to actually discover and share more accurate answers.]
Influencer conversations: doctors, consultants, coaches, leaders, etc. offer advice, stories, requests, information, etc. as persuasion tactics, trying to use ‘rational reasoning’, Behavior Modification, intuition/stories/scientific arguments, etc. to cause, congruent change. Unwittingly, due to the Other’s brain neurology, and absence of circuitry to translate the new, they end up facing resistance.
Change requests from professionals: change leaders end up getting resistance when they assume their requests are heard as intended, especially when the Listener has not bought into the change. Unfortunately, as you can see above, we often cause the resistance we get.
Situations of great import to Speaker: regardless of the importance of the message – i.e. a doctor imploring a patient to stop smoking, or a parent discussing the danger of drugs to teenagers, for example – patients hear, translate, mishear uniquely, and too often end up with a different take-away than doctors intend; partners end up annoyed for no reason; buyers end up feeling manipulated and pushed.
I often tell a story of an unfortunate conversation I had with a new business partner and his wife: John suddenly got angry, shouting at me about something I never said. ‘I never said that,’ said I. ‘Of course you did! I heard it with my own ears! I was standing right here!’ ‘She never said that, John. I was sitting right here also. She’s right. She never said that.’ ‘What’s wrong with you two!!!! You’re both lying to me!’ and he stomped out of the room, ending our partnership.
Net net: unless the criteria, the mindset, the outcomes, the definitions, and the challenges have been agreed to prior to conversation by all communication partners, the odds are bad that Others can hear the intended message accurately. Obviously, this restricts the range of possible outcomes.
HOW YOU CAN BE HEARD
- No matter how ‘carefully’ Others listen, there’s some chance they cannot hear the message we send. The farther the communication partners are away from the life experience of the Other, the more misinterpretation occurs. Listeners must check that they correctly heard what the speaker intended.
- Active Listening is built around Listeners noting the exact words spoken and then interpreting them ‘correctly’. It’s just about impossible for anyone outside the Other’s brain (including Group Brain) to fully, accurately interpret what Another means without specifically asking.
- In other words, when Active Listeners think they understand the Other’s intended message as per words spoken, they’re most likely guessing. The bigger problem occurs when they assume they’re right.
- In a conversation we automatically assume what we think we’ve heard is an accurate representation. Unfortunately, there’s no internal mechanism to automatically figure out the distance between accurate and ‘wrong’.
In What? I have chapters that tell Speakers how to notice when the responses they get seem to be faulty, and teach Listeners how to go ‘beyond the brain’ and listen from a ‘dissociative’ place (I devote Chapter 6 in What? to dissociative listening.) that avoids the normalized and habituated neural pathways, different from conventional listening.
Since many professionals believe they hear just fine (It’s the Other’s fault for mishearing!) I’d like to help you determine if you’re ready to learn additional tools to help you accurately hear what’s intended. Here are a few Facilitative Questions to help you decide (And note how they help you dissociate and recognize a broader viewpoint, possibly beyond resistance.):
- What would you need to believe differently to consider that Others’ ‘mishearing’ or ‘misunderstanding’ is a function of their subjective filters and that they’re not NOT paying attention or stubbornly ignoring you?
- How would you know if it were time to add some new skills to how you’re listening, to offer more options to expand the scope of what you hear?
- As an influencer, how will you recognize those times your ‘intuition’ may be faulty and that indeed you have mistranslated what you heard?
- How will you know when/if the questions you pose bias the data you collect and you’re leaving important facts undiscovered?
I know that many of you believe you hear accurately and act accordingly, and any inconsistency is the fault of the Other. But there’s a high probability that neither you nor your communication partner are hearing each other accurately.
It’s no one’s fault. But you can do something about it by dissociating, going beyond your brain, assuming you are unwittingly missing something. For those who don’t want to learn the path to dissociative listening, at least take an additional step in your conversations, assume both you and your communication partner may not be hearing each other accurately, and ask:
Would you rather think you’re right, or hear accurately? What’s the cost if you don’t?
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.sharon-drew.com She can be reached at email@example.com.