I used to assume that what I hear someone say is an accurate interpretation of what they mean. My assumption was wrong; what I think I hear (the words, the meaning) has a good chance of being inaccurate, regardless of my intent to listen carefully. But it’s not my fault.
During the years I spent reading, thinking, and researching for my book (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?) on closing the gap between what’s said and what’s heard, I was quite surprised to learn how little of what I think I hear is unbiased, or even accurate. Listening, it turns out, is a brain thing and has little to do with words or intent.
HOW BRAIN’S ‘LISTEN’
Our historic life experiences (education, family, values, Beliefs, mental models) filter all incoming words, creating biases and assumptions that keep us from translating incoming messages accurately. Generally speaking, our brain determines what we hear. And it’s not objective. Here’s what happens:
- Words are merely puffs of air that emerge from our lungs, formed by our mouth and tongue. They are meaningless sound vibrations that enter a Listener’s brain and get made into signals that get sent to ‘similar-enough’ brain circuits for translation. Everything ‘heard’ is understood and translated as per the circuits the signals were sent – what’s been ‘heard’ before – leaving the possibility that incoming content may be at least partially misunderstood.
- A Listener’s ears
– capture some portion of incoming sound vibrations,
– conducts them through historic filters (Beliefs, mental models, etc.)
– translate the remaining vibrations into signals that get sent to
– match ‘similar-enough’ existing circuits, which
– discard what doesn’t match.
The remainder is what we think we ‘hear’.
Listeners have no idea what has been discarded in the process, the relevance of the historic reference the translating circuit refers to, or what parts of the originating message are heard inaccurately.
- Speakers have no idea how a Listener’s brain has interpreted or biased what they’ve said or how close to accurate it is. Neither do Listeners. We all accept the translation our brain offers us as real.
- We speak in run-on sentences, not individual words, and a Listener’s brain must make sense of the variations in vibrations of each word.
- People speak for approximately 600 milliseconds and respond (or begin formulating a response) in 200 milliseconds. Large portions of what’s been said is not even listened to.
In other words, what we think we hear is some version of what’s been said. With people we’re in regular contact with and already have circuits to translate, it can be pretty accurate. With others not so much.
DIAGRAM OF HOW BRAINS ‘LISTEN’
Herein lie the gap between what’s said and what’s heard: we all make inaccurate assumptions of what we think we hear, causing us to respond and choose actions from a restricted or flawed knowledge base. Of course, it’s not done purposefully, but it sure plays havoc with communication and relationships.
I once lost a business partner because he misinterpreted something he thought I said, even though his wife told him he had misheard. His comment: “I heard it with my own ears! Are you both telling me I’m crazy??” and stormed out, never to speak to me again.
Unfortunately, and different from perceived wisdom, brains don’t allow us to ‘actively listen’ to accurately understand what’s been said. Sure, Active Listening allows us to ‘hear’ the words spoken but doesn’t capture the intent, the underlying meaning. And given our neurological hearing processes are automatic, mechanical, and thoughtless, we’re stuck with what we think we hear. Here’s a simplified diagram of the process of listening:
INPUT (WORDS/VIBRATIONS) -> FILTERS (BELIEFS, MENTAL MODELS) -> CUE (CREATES SIGNALS) -> CEN (DISPATCH) -> OUTPUT (INTERPRETATION – WHAT WE THINK WAS SAID)
There’s little chance any of us can understand a Speaker’s intended meaning accurately.
GUIDELINES TO MAXIMIZE UNDERSTANDING IN DIALOGUE
Given how vital listening is to our lives, for those times we want to make sure we understand and get on the same page with a Communication Partner (CP) to reach consensus, here are some guidelines:
Get agreement for a dialogue: Often, Communication Partners have different life experiences and, potentially different goals – many of which might be unconscious. Begin by agreeing to find common ground.
“I’d like to have a dialogue that might lead to us to a path that meets both of our goals. If you agree, do you have thoughts on where you’d like to begin?”
“I wonder if we can find common goals so we might find agreement to work from. I’m happy to share my goals with you; I’d like to hear yours as well.”
Set the frame for common values: At a global level, we all have similar foundational values, hopes and fears – for family, food, shelter, health. Start by ‘chunking up’ to find areas of agreement.
“I’d like to find a way to communicate that might help us find a common values so we can begin determining if we share areas of agreement. Any thoughts on how you’d like to proceed?”
“It seems we’re in opposite mind-sets. How do you recommend we go about finding if there’s any agreement we can start from?”
Get agreement on the topics in the conversation: One step at a time; make sure CPs agree to each item and skip the ones (for now) where there’s no agreement. (Put them in a Parking Lot for your next conversation.) Work with ‘what is’ instead of ‘what should be.’
Enter without bias: Unintentionally our historic, unconscious beliefs restrict our search for commonality. Replace emotions and blame with a new bias for this conversation: the ‘bias’ of collaboration.
“I’m willing to find common ground and would like to put aside my normal reactions for this hour but it will be a challenge since my feelings are so strong. Do you also have strong feelings that also might bias our communication? I wonder if we could share our most cherished beliefs and then discuss how we can move forward without bias.”
Get into Observer: To help overcome unconscious biases and filters, here are a few mind hacks that will supersede automatic brain processing: in your mind’s eye, see yourself on the ceiling looking down on yourself and your CP. I call this the Observer (witness, coach) position. It will provide a different viewpoint for your brain, replacing the emotional, automatic response with a broader, far less biased, view of your interaction. Another way is to walk around during the conversation, or sit way, way back in a chair. Sitting forward keeps you in your biases. (Chapter 6 in What? teaches how to stay in Observer and reduce bias.). From your Observer place, notice elements of the communication of both you and your CP:
- Notice body language/words: Similar to how your brain filters incoming words, your CP is speaking/listening from their filters and assumptions, which will be exhibited in their body language and eye contact. From Observer notice how their physical stance matches their words, the level of passion, feelings, and emotion. Now look down and notice how you look and sound in relation to your CP. Just notice. Read Carol Goman’s excellent book on the subject.
- Notice triggers: Emphasized words hold beliefs and biases. You may also hear absolutes: Always, Never; lots of You’s may be the vocabulary of blame. Silence, folded arms, a stick-straight torso may show distrust. Just notice where/when it happens for you both. If your CPs words trigger you into your own subjective viewpoints, you’ve gotten out of Observer and must get back onto the ceiling where you have choice. But just in case:
“I’m going to try very hard to speak/listen without my historic biases. If you find me getting heated, or feel blame, I apologize as that’s not my intent. If this should happen, please tell me you’re not feeling heard and I’ll do my best to work from a place of compassion and empathy.”
Summarize regularly: Because the odds are bad that you’ll accurately hear what your CP means to convey, summarize what you think you heard after every exchange:
“Sounds to me like you said, “XX”. Is that correct? What would you like me to understand that I didn’t understand or that I misheard?”
“I’ statements: Stay away from ‘You’ if possible. Try to work from the understanding that you’re standing in different shoes and there is no way either of you can see the other’s landscape.
“When I hear you say X it sounds to me like you are telling me that YY. Is that true?”
“When I hear you mention Y, I feel like Z and it makes me want to get up from the table as I feel you really aren’t willing to hear me. How can we handle this so we can move forward together?”
Get buy-in each step of the way: keep checking in, even if it seems obvious that you’re on the same page. It’s really easy to mistranslate what’s been said when the listening filters are different.
“Seems to me like we’re on the same page here. I think we’re both saying X. Is that true? What am I missing?”
“What should I add to my thinking that I’m avoiding or not understanding the same way you are? Is there a way you want me to experience what it looks like from your shoes that I don’t currently know how to experience? Can you help me understand?”
Check your gut: Notice when/if your stomach gets tight, or your throat hurts. These are sure signs that your beliefs are being stepped on and you’re out of Observer. Get back up to the ceiling and then tell your CP:
“I’m experiencing some annoyance/anger/fear/blame. That means something we’re discussing is going against one of my beliefs or values. Can we stop a moment and check in with each other so we don’t go off the rails?”
Get agreement on action items: Simple steps for forward actions will become obvious; make sure you both work on action items together.
Get a time on the calendar for the next meeting: Make sure you discuss who else needs to be brought into the conversation, end up with goals you can all agree on and walk away with an accurate understanding of what’s been said and what’s expected.
COMPASSION, EMPATHY, AND RESPECT
Until or unless we all hold the belief that none of us matter if some of us don’t; until or unless we’re all willing to take the responsibility for each (inadvertent)act of harm; until or unless we’re each willing to put aside our very real grievances to seek a higher good, we’ll never heal.
It’s not easy. But by learning how to hear each other with compassion and empathy, by closing the gap between what’s said and what’s heard, our conversations can begin. We must be willing to start sharing our Truth and our hearts and find a way to join with another’s Truth and heart. By hearing each other accurately, it’s the best start we can make.