I recently got an email from a subscriber complaining that although he’d read and learned a ton from my articles over the years, he was having trouble reading them on his computer and would I please put them on my blog (They’re up front for two weeks after sending out.).
When I read the email, I heard him telling me what to do and being disrespectful in several ways. My inner response: “Wait, what?! Why email me before checking? And if you loved my ideas why didn’t you want to learn them by purchasing the learning tools that go with them?? And why wouldn’t you try printing the articles before asking me to change for you? Why show up now to tell me what I do wrong when you’ve ignored thanking me for how long? And Dude: I don’t even know you!”
I didn’t say all that, naturally. Instead I wrote suggesting he check my site, asked why he never wanted to learn the full skills sets that went with my articles, and suggested a printer might be a good solution to his reading problem. He replied by offering names of other bloggers that do it his way (He STILL didn’t check! He STILL tried to convince me he was right!); that he was merely trying to help (Help what? Who?) so why didn’t I appreciate his efforts (To do what?), and (the best one): why was I getting defensive when he was offering me valuable advice (According to who? Insulting!)?
Two people hearing what they heard, entering a dialogue with unique expectations, subjective filters, and biases, and each some distance from the truth.
SUBJECTIVE FILTERS CAUSE A TRANSLATION PROBLEM
When a misunderstanding or misrepresentation occurs, Speakers assume they are in the ‘right’ because they ‘said it clearly’, and believe their communication partner is just ‘not listening’; Listeners assume what they think they hear is accurate.
But both are wrong: Speakers erroneously think that because they choose what seem like the ‘right’ words to impart their message accurately, Listeners should understand exactly what they mean/intend. But it’s not possible, and it’s not a ‘listening’ problem, or a problem of intent, skill, or concentration. It’s translation problem caused by the brain’s wiring.
As Listeners we can certainly hear the words spoken. But when it comes to interpreting them, we’re at the mercy of how our subjective listening filters translate the words we hear. Indeed, we only grasp our own unconscious translation of what’s been said, regardless of how disparate it is from the message intended. My newest book (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?) breaks down how our subjective filters, normalized thinking patterns, and habituated neural pathways determine what we hear Others say. And as I learned while writing, it’s not our fault.
WE CANNOT INTERPRET ACCURATELY
The precursor to communication may begin with a Speaker wishing to share or gather ideas, feelings, thoughts, etc. They then translate these thoughts into spoken words they assume will accurately translate their ideas to Listeners. So Speakers translate abstract ideas or thoughts into spoken words: inside-out.
Listeners have an almost opposite process. Words heard from Speakers enter Listener’s ears through vibrations, go from the ear and into the brain, get filtered through biases, assumptions, and triggers, then move along habituated neural pathways – subconscious filters, beliefs and historic givens that form our identity – to offer a unique interpretation that often supersedes the intent of the Speaker to some unknown degree. In other words, Listening is outside-in: brains code incoming messages uniquely and systemically and don’t necessarily end up ‘hearing’ or translating the message the Speaker meant to impart. We don’t intend to mishear or misunderstand; we just can’t do it otherwise.
Let me explain a bit more. Using conventional listening practices (i.e. normal content-based listening) it’s not possible to go beyond our brain’s normalized translation routes. There are hundreds of types of bias, assumptions, filters, triggers, habits, and neural pathways that keep us congruent by making sure what we hear perpetuates our lifelong conditioning. Even if we try hard to hear the exact words spoken (if we write down each word as it’s spoken – we remember words spoken for about 3 seconds), knowing the words does NOT denote accuracy: our brains interpret incoming words idiosyncratically regardless of the meaning/intent behind the spoken words.
The story gets worse. Not only do we unwittingly interpret what’s been said according to our own beliefs and biases, we have no idea of the reality: we might hear ABL when the Speaker actually said/meant ABC and we have no way of knowing that our brains deleted D,E,F,G,H,I,J,K as they pare down matches between memory channels and incoming messages, discarding elements of ideas, meaning, etc. in its search for compatibility. We then, still unconsciously, assign a unique meaning to whatever remains according to compatibility (or incompatibility) and connections with our existing beliefs and history of similar ideas.
So we think we hear what whatever our brains tell us and we have no way of knowing what’s been altered, omitted, or misappropriated, and assume what we think we hear is accurate. We always get some percentage wrong, but it’s not our fault.
WHO GETS HURT
Here are some of the areas particularly affected by the way our brains translate what they hear:
Questions to gather information: when Speakers seek answers to achieve goals or gather data (i.e. sellers, doctors, coaches, influencers, parents, etc.) they can’t help but pose biased questions according to their need to know, and sometimes restrict the full landscape of possibility to a confined data set. So Listeners end up potentially offering ‘bad’ or incomplete data that is mistaken for Truth. It’s not bad data, exactly: Listeners brains get triggered to memory channels according to the biases inherent in the questions, offering Speakers some unknown/unknowable portion of reality.
Compounded with the natural unconscious translation process Listeners incur, most exchanges suffer some degree of restriction due to the biases in a Speaker’s questions. [Note: I’ve invented Facilitative Questions that are systemic, unbiased, directional, and cause a Listener’s brain to 1. disassociate from normalized thinking and 2. seek a very specific route to finding and extracting the appropriate data outside habituated neural pathways. As a result, Listeners actually discover and share more accurate answers.]
Influencer conversations: doctors, consultants, coaches, leaders, etc. offer advice, stories, requests, information, etc. as persuasion tactics, trying to use ‘rational reasoning’, Behavior Modification, intuition/stories/scientific arguments, etc. to cause, rather than elicit, Other’s congruent change and instead end up threatening their status quo. When ideas are pushed without first enlisting belief change to accept the new concept, the status quo resists: influencers create thier own resistance.
Change requests from professionals: unfortunately, as you can see above, we often cause the resistance we get to important change requests. Remember: people can only hear what their brains allow them to hear and incoming messages will be uniquely translated regardless of how important, or life-saving, the information. It’s not their fault. Blame their brains and their lifelong filters. And don’t forget to blame the professionals who continue to push change because ‘it’s right’ without enabling collaborative dialogues to ensure understanding and congruent change practices.
The bottom line is: so long as we’re using information sharing or gathering as the route to enabling change into a brain that’s set up to maintain the status quo, we’re at the mercy of Another’s subjective filters, habituated neural pathways, and normalized status quo. For those wishing to learn an alternate approach, I’ve developed a Change Facilitation model (Buying Facilitation®) I’ve been training globally for 35 years, for sellers, coaches, and doctors, to enable congruent change in Others.
Situations of great import to Speaker: regardless of the importance of the message – i.e. a doctor imploring a patient to stop smoking, or a parent discussing the danger of drugs to teenagers, for example – patients hear, translate, mishear uniquely, and too often end up with a different take-away than doctors intend; partners end up annoyed for no reason; buyers end up feeling manipulated and pushed.
I often tell a story of an unfortunate conversation I had with a new business partner and his wife: John suddenly got angry, shouting at me about something I never said. ‘I never said that,’ said I. ‘Of course you did! I heard it with my own ears! I was standing right here!’ ‘She never said that, John. I was sitting right here also. She’s right. She never said that.’ ‘What’s wrong with you two!!!! You’re both lying to me!’ and he stomped out of the room, ending our partnership.
Net net: unless the criteria, the mindset, the outcomes, the definitions, and the challenges have been agreed to prior to the beginning of a conversations and the definitions, outcomes, and goals are agreed to by all communication partners, the odds are bad that Others can hear the intended message accurately. Obviously, this restricts the range of possible outcomes.
HOW YOU CAN BE HEARD
- No matter how ‘carefully’ Others listen, there’s some chance they cannot hear the message we send. The farther the communication partners are away from the life experience of the Other, the more misinterpretation occurs.
- Active Listening is built around Listeners noting the exact words spoken and then interpreting them ‘correctly’. It’s impossible – impossible – for anyone outside the Other’s brain (including Group Brain) to fully, accurately interpret what Another means (Others interpret according to their OWN subjective filters regardless of the words spoken): much easier if it’s a family member with a continuing intimate involvement; much more difficult if lives are disparate, with a different community, industry, lifestyle or family history, with different needs and assumptions. In other words, when Active Listeners think they understand the Other’s intended message as per words spoken, they’re most likely guessing. The bigger problem occurs when they assume they’re right.
- In a conversation we automatically assume what we think we’ve heard is an accurate representation. Unfortunately, there’s no internal mechanism to automatically figure out the distance between accurate and ‘wrong’.
In What? I have chapters that tell Speakers how to notice when the responses they get seem to be faulty, and teach Listeners how to go ‘beyond the brain’ and listen from a ‘dissociative’ place (In Observer, or on the ceiling. I devote Chapter 6 in What? to dissociative listening.) that avoids the normalized and habituated neural pathways, but is certainly different from conventional listening.
Since many professionals believe they hear just fine (It’s the Other’s fault for mishearing!) I’d like to help you determine if you’re ready to learn additional tools to help you accurately hear what’s intended. Here are a few Facilitative Questions to help you decide (And note how they help you dissociate and recognize a broader viewpoint, possibly beyond resistance.):
- What would you need to believe differently to consider that Others’ ‘mishearing’ or ‘misunderstanding’ is a function of their subjective filters and that they’re not NOT paying attention or stubbornly ignoring you?
- How would you know if it were time to add some new skills to how you’re listening, to offer more options to expand the scope of what you hear?
- As an influencer, how will you recognize those times your ‘intuition’ may be faulty and that indeed you have mistranslated what you heard?
- How will you know when/if the questions you pose bias the data you collect and you’re leaving important facts undiscovered?
I know that many of you believe you hear accurately and act accordingly, and any inconsistency is the fault of the Other. But there’s a high probability that neither you nor your communication partner are hearing each other accurately. It’s no one’s fault. But you can do something about it by dissociating, going beyond your brain, assuming you are unwittingly missing something. For those who don’t want to learn the path to dissociative listening, at least take an additional step in your conversations, assume both you and your communication partner may not be hearing each other accurately, and ask:
Ask yourself: would you rather think you’re right, or hear accurately? What’s the cost if you don’t?
Sharon Drew Morgen is the author of What? did you really say what I think I heard? To support the book, she has designed a Study Guide that follows each chapter with assessments, exercises, questionnaires, so readers can learn what they need for more accurate learning. Sharon Drew is also the NYTimes Bestselling author of Selling with Integrity, and Amazon bestsellers Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell, and What?, in addition to 7 other books. She is the inventor of Buying Facilitation® a front end change facilitation model used to help buyers traverse the Pre Sales sequence of change necessary before they can buy, and Facilitative Questions, a new form of question that enables change from the inside out. Sharon Drew works with global corporations and healthcare providers.