Do you enter conversations to listen for what will confirm your assumptions? Do you assume the responses to your questions provide an accurate representation of the full fact pattern – ‘good’ data – on which to base your follow-on questions? Do you assume your history of similar topics gives you a more elevated understanding of what your Communication Partners (CPs) mean rather than what they’re actually saying?
If any of the above are true, you’re biasing your conversation.
- By entering conversations with assumptions and personal goals,
- and listening according to historic, unconscious, self-referenced filters,
- you unwittingly direct conversations
- to your range of expectations and familiarity
- and potentially miss a more optimal outcome.
In other words, listening biased by your unconscious needs and assumptions keeps you from truly understanding the message offered and obtaining optimal results. But it’s not your fault.
OUR BRAINS CAUSE A GAP BETWEEN WHAT’S SAID AND WHAT’S HEARD
The most surprising takeaway from my year of research 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 was learning how little of what we think we hear is unbiased, or even accurate. Indeed, it’s pretty rare for us to hear precisely what another intends us to hear: our brains don’t allow us to.
Employing assumptions, triggers, memory tricks, and habit our brains listen through our unconscious biases, causing us to unwittingly alter the meaning that was actually intended. In fact – and this is the scary part – our brains don’t even tell us what they misheard or misrepresented, regardless of our desire to be neutral when listening, and regardless of how hard we try to listen carefully.
Sound actually enters our ears as meaningless sound vibrations that get filtered on entry according to our beliefs. The remaining vibrations then get made into electrochemical signals that seek the ‘closest’ match among our 100 trillion existing synapses that seem to be ‘similar-enough’. And – here’s the annoying part – the signals that don’t correspond exactly with the existing circuitry get deleted, without us knowing, leaving us assuming that what we’ve heard is accurate. Indeed there’s a good chance what we think we’ve heard is merely some fraction of accurate, certainly some version of what we’ve heard before.
So your CP might say ABC and your brain tells you they said ABL without even mentioning it omitted D, E, F, etc. and just presenting the misinterpreted message as fact. I once lost a business partner because he ‘heard’ me say X when three of us confirmed I said Y. “I was right here! Why are you all lying to me! I KNOW she said that!” And he walked out in a self-generated rage, never to speak to me again. This makes it tough for any communication where mutual understanding is so important.
Obviously as sellers, coaches, leaders, or influencers of any kind we cannot ever know our CPs innermost thinking. And given variances in our beliefs/values, background, mental models, etc., and entering conversations with our own goals and unconscious biases, there’s a chance we end up unintentionally restricting the full range of viable outcomes. In other words, our natural inability to hear others accurately causes us miscommunication and flawed understanding. Not to mention lost business and lost relationships.
Net net, we unwittingly base our conversation, goals, questions, intuitive responses and offerings on an assumption of what we think has been said. We have the best chance of success with those whose biases match our own, like an old friend or family member. Otherwise it’s necessary to check with your CP to make sure what you thought you heard is accurate. [Note: for those who want to manage this problem, I’ve developed a work-around in Chapter 6 of What?)
ENTERING CONVERSATIONS WITHOUT BIAS
Now that we know our brains set us up to hear Others according to our own histories, let’s go back to the problems incurred by entering conversations with personal biases:
- by biasing the framework of the conversation to the goals we wish to achieve, we overlook alternative, congruent outcomes. Sellers, coaches, leaders, and managers often enter conversations with personal expectations and goals rather than collaboratively setting a viable frame and together discovering possibility.
- by listening only for what we’re (consciously or unconsciously) focused on hearing, we overlook a broader range of possible outcomes. Sellers, negotiators, leaders, help desk professionals, and coaches often listen for what they want to hear so they can say what they want/are trained to say, or pose biased questions, and possibly miss real opportunities to promote agreement.
Here are some ideas to help you create conversations that avoid restriction:
- Shift your goal as an influencer to facilitating the route to change. You’ll never have the full fact pattern, or the weight and implications of each element that has created and maintains the status quo. But you can lead a route to change using systems thinking and enabling your CP to engage their own change, congruently.
- Enter each conversation with a willingness to serve the greater good within the bounds of what you have to offer, rather than meet a specific outcome. Any expectations or goals limit outcomes. The Other’s outcome will become obvious to them.
- Enter with a blank brain, as a neutral navigator, servant leader, change facilitator.
- Trust that your CP has her own answers. Your job is to help her find them. This is particularly hard for coaches and leaders who believe they have answers, or must influence the outcome toward a goal, or use their expertise to help the person change the way the influencer believes they should. (And yes, all influencers, sellers, leaders, negotiators, and coaches are guilty of this.) I’ve written an article to specifically address this.
- Stay away from data gathering. Your biased questions will only extract biased answers. Use questions focused on enabling change because you’ll never gather the full fact pattern anyway. Neutral questions like “What has stopped you from making the change before now?” is an example of a question addressed to systemic change. [Note: I’ve developed Facilitative Questions that eschew information gathering and lead systemic change through unconscious thinking patterns.]
- Make ‘enabling Others to discover their route to Excellence’ your goal, not a specific behavior you might deem important.
- Get rid of your ego, your need to be right or smart or have the answers. Until your CP finds a way to recognize their own unconscious issues, and design congruent change that matches their idiosyncratic ‘givens’, you aren’t helpful regardless of how much you think you know.
By listening with an ear that hears avenues to serve, to understand what’s been said without unconscious bias, you can truly serve your Communication partner.