I used to think that if I showed up intentionally and listened carefully, I would accurately understand what someone was saying. I was wrong.
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. Turns out our listening is pretty subjective.
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. What we think we hear has been interpreted by brain circuits that historically interpreted similar-enough incoming messages – hence, we interpret what we hear the same way we interpret what we’ve heard before, thereby restricting and misinterpreting new content accordingly.
- When listening, our brain automatically and haphazardly deletes incoming ideas that are foreign to our beliefs and our brains fail to tell us what’s been deleted.
- Whatever is left after being interpreted subjectively by familiar circuits (potentially different from what was said), and with some unknown number of deletions, is what we think we’ve 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 and I always use them both together.
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 my type of double first name (vs Mary Ann which already has circuits in most brains) was foreign to her, her brain used a habituated pathway for ‘name’, deleting both how Joe introduced us and my correction.
Here is where the assumptions get interesting:
- She exacerbated the problem by then assuming – as per her habituated knowledge about names – I offered first and last name (which I never offered), again ignoring my explanation.
- She went on to further assume she was right and I was wrong when I corrected her.
Like all of us, 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, we assume our brain circuits offer us accurate interpretations, making it pretty difficult to know if what we’ve heard is accurate. We end up making assumptions based on our own mental models.
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’. When I asked a magazine editor to correct the name Sharon Morgan that appeared under my photo he said (and I can’t make this stuff up!): “I didn’t get it wrong. You must have sent it to me wrong.” True story.
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.
THE COST OF ASSUMING
Assumptions cost us greatly, harming relationships, business success, and health:
- Sellers assume prospects are buyers when they ‘hear’ a ‘need’ based on their biased questions 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 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 hear inaccurately, or when offered advice runs counter to their assumptions that their self-care is adequate;
- 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 have THE solution, followed by matching reasons or rational behind their requests. They then blame the Other for resisting, ignoring, or sabotaging, when the assumed solution procures resistance.
Using normal listening habits we can’t avoid making assumptions. But by now that assumption has been proved wrong time and time again: 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’). This will detach you from your triggers that set you off. When new information, a new relationship, collaborative dialogues, or fine data gathering is necessary, Observer helps understand what’s been said more accurately and we make fewer 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.