Our Listening Restricts Our Lives: understanding our listening filters

listening 4At a neighborhood picnic recently, I introduced myself to five people standing together:

SDM: Hi. I’m Sharon-Drew Morgen, and I use both names “Sharon-Drew” as my first name. What’s your name?

JIM: Hi Sharon, I’m Jim. Nice meeting you.

SDM: Hi Jim. But, um, no. Actually my first name is Sharon-Drew. I use both names.

JIM: Oh, that’s right, you just said that. Sorry. Nice meeting you, Sharon-Drew.

SUSAN: Hi Sharon. I’m Susan.

SDM: Hi Susan. Actually, my first name is Sharon-Drew and I always use both names.

SUSAN: Oh. Right. You just said that to Jim. Sorry. Hi Sharon-Drew.

FELIX: Hi Sharon. I’m Felix.

SDM: Um, actually, my first name is Sharon-Drew……

And so it continued around the circle. FIVE people – standing next to each other, and looking directly at me – didn’t ‘hear’ me explain repeatedly that I used two first names. Well, actually, they heard it. But because the name isn’t within their brain’s recognition of ‘typical’, it was filtered out of their conscious understanding. And we all do this on a regular basis.


We love, live, work, and play amongst those with similar values and beliefs, cultural norms and politics. We choose partners, jobs, neighborhoods, and friends that maintain our world views and allow us to lead relatively uncomplicated lives, seeking, avoiding or battling against ideas and people who challenge us. To accomplish this our brains filter what other say to us (regardless of the situation) biasing the message, making inaccurate assumptions, or following our brains through inappropriate memory channels and neural pathways to places that were unsaid and not meant. We hear what we want to hear and filter out the rest: it’s not our fault; our brains do it to us through filters and language itself:

  1. Pattern habituation:

    a. We speak in one unbroken stream of words (Spaces appear only between written words.), that are differentiated only by those familiar with the language and vocabulary (Have you ever asked a question from a language book in a foreign country and get a response in a continuous stream of words that can’t be isolated to allow you to look them up to translate? Everyone speaks in word streams.);
    b. Our brains only remember spoken words for approximately 3 seconds. By the time our brains separate the individual words to glean meaning, we’re ‘behind’ the speaker, so we rely on our unconscious habits and thinking patterns to bridge, or fill in, gaps in understanding (as in my name issues in opening story). Obviously, it’s easiest to accurately understand people we’re similar to.

  2. Subjective filters:  Bias, assumptions, triggers, habituated neural pathways, and memory channels sift out what’s being said that’s uncomfortable or different from our beliefs, our lifestyles, our status quo, or are not in line within the realm/goal of what we enter the conversation actively sorting for.

We hear others uniquely and subjectively, making lots of guesses and habitual (and potentially incorrect) connections and assumptions; we end up mishearing directions, rules, warnings etc., take away mistaken comprehension, make agreements we’re not aligned with, ignore important or relevant ideas or requets, and on and on. As sellers we hear people in a way we construe they’re buyers; as coaches we hear people complain of stuff we know how to fix; as leaders we hear our teams convey they’re on-board (or not) with our ideas; as change agents we hear rejection.

We set up our worlds to hear what we want to hear regardless of what Others actually mean. When researching my book What? Did you really say what I think I heard?  about the understanding gap between what’s said and what’s heard, I discovered the complicated set of physiological elements involved.


We unwittingly listen through our unconscious, subjective, and predisposed filters. Unfortunately our brain omits to tell us what it has altered, keeping us unconsciously rooted in what’s comfortable and familiar. Biases (of which there are hundreds), assumptions, and triggers are major impediments to what we think we hear: our neural pathways, habits, and memory channels automatically get triggered by a word or phrase regardless of the efficacy of the choice and when there might be more relevant memory channels available. To fill in the language gaps, to garner understanding or to recognize a fight or flight situation, our brains unconsciously go through stages of filtering. Simplistically, here’s our unconscious process:

  1. We first listen with filters for familiarity and sameness, seeking a match with our unconscious biases, beliefs, and values – and delete or alter what seems incompatible.
  2. With what’s left from the initial round of filtering, our brains seek a match with something familiar by sorting for a similar memory, which could focus on just a term or one of the ideas mentioned, or or or, and throws away what doesn’t match (like what happened with my name above) without telling us what’s been omitted or misconstrued! We might accurately hear the words spoken, but unconsciously assign vastly different implications from the intended meaning.

And because we’re only ‘told’ what our brains ‘tell’ us has been said, we end up ‘certain’ that what we think we hear is actually what’s meant. Listeners always assume what they think they hear is what has been said. And where this diverges from the speaker’s intended meaning, we end up responding to an inaccurate understanding and never consider that just maybe we got it wrong. [Note: I’m always amused when men tell me they hear what their wives mean ‘better than they do.’]

It all happens automatically and unconsciously, and we have no conscious ability to tell our brains what to search for during the filtering process. In other words, we hear a fraction of a fraction of what’s meant (I’ve got an entire section in What? that thoroughly describes this nasty process.) and we then respond according to what we THINK has been said. So we might get self-righteously angry, or perceive we’re forgiven; we hear people as racists or healers or sarcastic or buyers; we feel slighted or complimented or ignored; we think ideas are stupid and opinions absurd. I lost a potential business partner who was adamant that I said something he found offensive, although both his wife and I assured him I’d never said that. ‘You’re both lying to me! I heard it with my own ears!’ And that was his truth. His brain did tell him I said that, even though I didn’t.


Communication itself is a piece of the problem. We assume our Communication Partners (CPs) assign words the same meanings and assumptions we do, further restricting success, understanding, and relationships. It’s obviously problematic when our CPs operate from different norms (another reason we contain our lives to what’s familiar), especially when they’re unspoken or haven’t been agreed upon. When I travelled in Japan, for example, I found it disconcerting that my CPs would quickly gauge my reactions while they spoke, then added a “NOT” at the end of the sentence if my response wasn’t what they were after, negating everything that they’d said to make it more ‘palatable’ to me. Different industries, different cultures, different educational backgrounds, and even different neighborhoods, have different assumptions built in to their listening filters and communication habits. This, too, limits our worlds, leading to disastrous, or funny, results. Listen to this dialogue:

After an Identity Theft problem, my bank account had to be closed and a new one reopened. This is the conversation I had with the bank rep when he called to get me a new set of checks.

BANK: What number would you like your checks to start with?

SDM: Cool. Let’s see. One half? Hahahaha. Maybe 4,962?

BANK: Let’s start with Check #1.

SDM: Oh no. I’ve already used up about 100 or more checks.

BANK: Why didn’t you say that?

SDM: You never asked.

BANK: Yes I did. That’s exactly what I asked you.

SDM: No, you asked what number I’d like to start with.

BANK: Same thing.

Obviously, it wasn’t the same thing to me. In order to have understood what he ‘meant’ I would have to have recognized that this was ‘bank language’ and have implicitly ‘agreed’ to cooperate with his assumption. But I didn’t. I really never heard him ask for the check numbers I used. Indeed, I actually found his question fun until he pointed out that he meant something different than what I heard.

My bank story is a fun example of how uniquely and subjectively we hear each other. And due to our universal assumption that our CPs are intent on cooperating in a dialogue, we feel rule-bound to continue cooperating, nodding our heads, or say ‘uh huh’ to imply agreement and understanding. Whole industries train folks on what to listen for. Sellers listen for any modicum of need and ignore the underlying impediments to buying ability; coaches and therapists listen for the roots of a problem that they’re familiar with, asking biased questions that potentially miss the real problem; leaders listen for glitches in compliance and miss the underlying mismatch in beliefs that will cause implementation issues. Net net it’s difficult to fully understand what others intend to tell us unless we know our CP very well and understand their world view and reference points. And even then it’s iffy.

I’ve devised an approach I call Listening Systems to circumvent all listening filters and biases (see chapter 6 in What?) to hear what our CPs actually mean. For those who don’t want to learn how to do this but want a simple take-away, use this question at the end of an important dialogue or meeting: Do you mind if I check that what I heard you say is accurate? And remember: it’s just not possible to fully understand your CP in many conversations. Pick the conversations most important to you and continually check in. It will make the conversation a bit unwieldy, but at least it will be accurate. Or contact me – I’ve got a one day program that teaches teams to hear each other and their clients, accurately, without bias or filters.


For those interested in learning how to recognize or avoid your listening biases, and ensure you’re hearing what your Communication Partner intends to convey, here are some options (Note: programs are for individual or team learners. The on-line How to Listen program is for teams reading What? together and follow the chapters in the book to install learning.).

On Line: Bias AssessmentHow to Listen without Filters;  Face-to-face ‘one day program’: How to hear what’s meant


Sharon-Drew Morgen is a thought leader in Change Facilitation, in sales (Buying Facilitation®), coaching, communication (www.didihearyou.com), and leadership. She is the author of 9 books, including the NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and the Amazon bestsellers What? and Dirty Little Secrets and the inventor of Buying Facilitation®. Sharon-Drew’s award winning blog www.sharondrewmorgen.com carries interesting articles on change, decision making, leadership, coaching, and how buyers buy. She has trained over 100,000 people in global corporations over the past 35 years. She can be reached at sharondrew@sharondrewmorgen.com

Scroll to Top