We all know the importance of listening; of connecting with others by deeply hearing them share thoughts, ideas, and feelings; by being present and authentic. We work hard at listening without judgment, carefully, with our full attention. But are we hearing others without bias? I contend we’re not.
WHAT IS LISTENING?
From the work I’ve done unpacking the routes of incoming messages in brains, I believe that listening is far more than hearing words and understanding another’s shared thoughts and feelings. Listening is actually a brain thing that has little do to with meaning. It’s about puffs of air.
There are several problems with us accurately hearing what someone says, regardless of our intent to show up as empathetic listeners. Generally speaking, our brains determine what we hear. And they weren’t designed to be objective. There are two primary reasons:
- Words are meant to be semantic transmissions of meaning, yet they emerge from our mouths smooshed together in a singular gush with no spaces between them. Our brains then have the herculean task of deciphering individual sounds, individual word breaks, unique definitions, to understand their meaning. No one speaks with spaces between words. Otherwise. It. Would. Sound. Like. This. Hearing impaired people face this problem with new cochlear implants: it takes about a year for them to learn to decipher individual words, where one word ends and the next begins.
- When others speak, their words enter our ears as puffs of air without denotation – sound vibrations that have no meaning at all. None. And it’s all electrochemical. Words, in and of themselves, have no meaning at all until our brain translates them.
This second point is confounding and paves the way for misunderstanding: our ears hear what they’re set up to hear, not necessarily what a speaker intends to share.
Just as we perceive color when light receptors in our eyes send messages to our brain to translate the incoming light waves (the world has no color), meaning is a translation of sound vibrations that have traversed a very specific brain pathway after we hear them.
As such, I define listening as our brain’s progression of making meaning from incoming sound vibrations.
HOW BRAINS LISTEN
I didn’t start off with that definition. Like most people, I had thought that if I gave my undivided attention and listened ‘without judgment’, I’d be able to hear what a Speaker intended. But I was wrong.
It’s not for want of trying; Listeners work hard at empathetic listening, of caring about the Speaker and the conversation, of responding collaboratively and caringly. But the way our brains are organized make it difficult to hear others without bias.
Seems everything we perceive (all incoming sensory) is translated (and restricted) by the circuits already set up in our brains. If you’ve ever heard a conversation and had a wholly different takeaway than others in the room, or understood something differently from the intent of the Speaker, it’s because listening isn’t based on words or intended meaning; it’s because our brains have a purely mechanistic approach to translating signals. Here’s what our brains do:
Input (vibrations from words, thoughts, sound, feeling, sight)
CUE (turns incoming vibrations into electro-chemical signals)
CEN (Central Executive Network finds existing ‘similar-enough’ circuits to interpret into meaning)
Here’s a simplified version of what happens when someone speaks:
– the sound of their words enter our ears as mere vibrations (puffs of air with no meaning),
– get turned into electro-chemical signals (also without meaning) that
– get sent to existing circuits
– that have a ‘close-enough’ match (but may not match fully)
– previously used for other translations,
– and then discards the overage – whatever doesn’t match
– causing us to ‘hear’ the messages translated through circuits we already have on file!
The worst part is that when our brain discards the ‘overage’ signals, it doesn’t tell us! So if you say “ABC” and the closest circuit match in my brain is “ABL” my brain discards D, E, F, G, etc. and fails to tell me what it threw away!
That’s why we believe what we ‘think’ we’ve heard is accurate. Our brain actually tells us that our biased rendition of what it thinks it heard is what was said, regardless of how near or far that interpretation is from the truth.
In other words, we ‘hear’ only what our brains translate based on our historic circuits – or, our biased, subjective experience.
With the best will in the world, with the best empathetic listening, by being as non-judgmental as we know how to be, as careful to show up with undivided attention, we can only hear what our brain allows us to hear. Being unwittingly restricted by our past, just about everything we hear is naturally biased.
IT’S POSSIBLE TO GET IT ‘RIGHTER’
The problem is our automatic, mechanistic brain. Since we can’t easily change the process itself (I’ve been developing brain change models for decades; it’s possible to add new circuits.), it’s possible to interfere with the process.
I’ve come up with two ways to listen with more accuracy:
- When listening to someone speak, stand up and walk around, or lean far back in a chair. It’s a physiologic fix, offering an Observer/witness viewpoint that goes ‘beyond the brain’ and disconnects from normal brain circuitry. I get permission to do this even while I’m consulting at Board meetings with Fortune 100 companies. When I ask, “Do you mind if I walk around while listening so I can hear more accurately?” I’ve never been told no. They are happy to let me pace, and sometimes even do it themselves once they see me do it. I’m not sure why this works or how. But it does.
- To make sure you take away an accurate message of what’s said say this:
To make sure I understood what you said accurately, I’m going to tell you what I think you said. Can you please tell me what I misunderstood or missed? I don’t mind getting it wrong, but I want to make sure we’re on the same page.
Listening is a fundamental communication tool. It enables us to connect, collaborate, care, and relate with everyone. By going beyond Active Listening, by adding Brain Listening to empathetic listening, we can now make sure what we hear is actually what was intended.