How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
How Listening Filters Cause Misunderstanding
Guest articles > How Listening Filters Cause Misunderstanding
by: Sharon Drew Morgen
When researching my book on closing the gap between whatâs said and whatâs heard, I was surprised to learn how little of what we hear someone say is unbiased, or even accurate. Seems we hear what we want to hear, and not necessarily whatâs been meant; too often we donât know the difference. There are several elements that conspire against accuracy. And sadly, itâs largely out of our control.
THE PROBLEM WITH LANGUAGE
Let me begin with my definitions of âlanguageâ and âcommunicationâ:
In dialogue, language is a translation process between a Speakerâs thoughts - translated and verbalized into a delivery system of ideas, words, voice (tone, tempo, pitch), and the unspoken goal/bias of the outcome sought - and the Listenerâs filtering system.
A completed communication is a circle - Speaker -> Listener -> Speaker: the Speaker translates an internal thought/idea through language to their Communication Partner (CP) who listens through their own unique and subjective filters, and responds to what they have interpreted. Until or unless the Speakerâs message has been received accurately, the communication is not complete.
Language itself is one of the problems we face when attempting to accurately understand what a Speaker means:
Arguably the largest detractor of accuracy for understanding our CPs intended message are the cultural, experiential, belief, education, and intimacy gaps that create subjective and unconscious filters in us all. These filters - biases, assumptions, triggers, habituated neural pathways, and memory channels - unconsciously and automatically sift out or transform what our CP says thatâs uncomfortable or different from our beliefs, our lifestyles, etc., or arenât in line within the goal of what weâre actively seeking in the exchange.
While we each assume that what we âhearâ is an accurate representation of whatâs been said, often itâs not. With our subjective listening filters uniquely interpreting what others say, we canât help but
and on and on. As sellers we âhearâ that people are buyers; as coaches we âhearâ people complain of stuff we know how to fix; as leaders we âhearâ our teams convey theyâre on-board (or not) with our ideas; as change agents we âhearâ rejection rather than alternate approaches or shared concerns; as parents we âhearâ our teenagers making excuses.
OUR BRAINS TRICK US
Simplistically, hereâs our unconscious listening process:
And because weâre only âtoldâ what our brains âtellâ us has been said, we end up âcertainâ that what we think we hear is actually whatâs meant. So if someone says ABC we might actually hear ABL, without knowing what our brains added, subtracted, or muddled. I once lost a business partner because he âheardâ me say X when three of us sitting there, including his wife, confirmed I said Y. âI was right here! Why are you all lying to me! I heard it with my own ears!â And he walked out in a self-generated rage. His brain actually told him I said something I never said and he never questioned it, even though three people told him he misheard.
I know this is disconcerting but itâs important to understand: Listeners always assume what they (think they) hear is what has been said. And where this diverges from the Speakerâs intended meaning, we end up responding to an inaccurate understanding, blaming our CP for miscommunicating, and never consider that just maybe we unwittingly got it wrong.
It all happens automatically and unconsciously, and we end up involuntarily misunderstanding without realizing, until too late, that there is a problem. Indeed we have no conscious ability to tell our brains what to search for when weâre listening, causing us to potentially hear a fraction of a fraction of whatâs meant; we then compound the problem by responding according to what we THINK has been said. So we might get self-righteously angry, or perceive weâre forgiven; we hear people as racists or healers or sarcastic or buyers; we feel slighted or complimented or ignored; we think ideas are stupid and opinions absurd. And in each instance, we miss the possibility of a partnership, or a new concept, or a conversation or relationship that might have been.
In summary: the structure of language itself causes confusion when listening to Others; our subjective filters - biases (of which there are hundreds), assumptions, and triggers - are unconscious impediments to what we think we hear; our neural pathways, habitual associations, and memory channels automatically, and subjectively, get triggered by a word or phrase and go down their own well-traveled path to seek a match, potentially eschewing more relevant or accurate routes to understanding; our brains donât tell us what itâs omitted or transformed, leaving us potentially misunderstanding â without question - what our CP meant to impart.
And itâs all unconscious. According to Sarah Williams Goldhagen in Welcome to Your World, our unconscious (or ânonconsciousâ as she calls it) is approximately 90% of our attention, and only 10% ââŚpatterned and schematized in a way we can interact with others.â(pg 59) So misunderstanding is virtually built into our communication.
LISTENING FOR METAMESSAGES INSTEAD OF WORDS
Unfortunately we have no automatic capability to hear a Speakerâs intended message accurately, regardless of the Speakerâs word choices or the Listenerâs commitment to listening âcarefullyâ, regardless of the costly wordsmithing done in many industries to lure Listener buy-in. But as Listeners can take an active role in consciously managing our listening filters to encourage greater understanding. For this we must circumvent our biased listening; we must learn the skill of avoiding listening for meaning solely from the words.
From birth, weâre taught to carefully listen for words (and Active Listening has a part to play in this predisposition), assuming, falsely, weâll translate them accurately. We can, however, circumvent our normal filtering process by shifting our attention from listening to words to listening for meaning; listening for whatâs meant, rather than for whatâs said; listening less to the words and more for the Speakerâs underlying intent.
Letâs walk this back. Remember that Speakers speak to impart an underlying thought (I call this the Metamessage) and then unconsciously select the most precise words â for that situation, for that Listener - to do so. But these word choices might not be the best ones to garner accurate understanding in that particular Listener. Certainly, a Speaker has no idea how a Listenerâs filters will interpret the sent message. This becomes more obvious when speaking to a group and some members understand, others misunderstand. To circumvent misunderstanding, to have a greater chance of hearing whatâs meant and eliminating the factors causing misunderstanding, we must take filters out of the listening process.
Thereâs a higher probability of hearing others accurately if Listeners bypass the normal filtering process and instead focus on the Speakerâs intended meaning. I learned the basic concept while studying NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming â the study of the structure of subjective experience) and expanded it in my book What? Did you really say what I think I heard? When listening we can actually go beyond the brain and experience a broad view (not intimate details) of whatâs being meant.
To avoid our listening filters, to get the broader meaning behind the idea intended, we must go âup to the ceilingâ and listen as a Witness/Observer. A very simple example would be if someone said âI wish you would be on time more oftenâ, the Metamessage might be âI hate that youâre late again. And Iâm getting tired of waiting for you all the time!â We do this naturally when speaking with a small child, listening with for what they mean to tell us, rather than focus on their possibly unskilled wordsmithing. Or when we overhear a conversation in a Starbucks. In both instances weâre Observers.
We don't know how to consciously choose; the problem is we donât know how to consciously choose to do so. To choose the Witness/Observer viewpoint, think of a time when youâre aware you were listening without any personal agenda and break down how you did that â how you knew when it was time to disengage from the words, what you noticed that was different, how it shifted your communication exchange. If itâs something you want to learn, Iâve written an entire chapter on this (Chapter 6) in What?.
LISTENING FOR MEANING VS WORDS
Here are two cold call interactions that exemplify the difference between listening for words vs for Metamessages. The first is a dialogue of a coaching client in which I was teaching him how to sell with integrity. He started out fine, but then dissolved into his old push technique when he interpreted the prospectâs words according to his own filters:
BROKER: Hi My name is Jeff Rosen. I sell insurance and this is a cold call. Is this a good time to speak?
CLIENT: Hi Jeff. Thanks for calling but Iâm just walking out the door.
The prospect hung up.
SDM: What was that????? You started off great! And he responded kindly.
BROKER: I had to talk really fast because he said he was busy.
Listening for the spoken words through his filters, my client only heard a time constraint and didnât âhearâ that the prospect stayed on the line and didnât hang up. Listening from a Witness/Observer position he would have heard that the prospect was polite and hanging in with him, and made another choice: âIâll call back when itâs convenient.â Or âThanks. Whatâs a better time?â
In a very similar situation, I made a cold call to the Chief Training Officer at IBM; youâll notice that both of us listened for the Metamessage instead of the words:
NANCY: [The worldâs fastest] HELLO!
SDM: You sound busy. When should I call back?
NANCY: Tomorrow at 2.
And we both hung up.
This continued for 3 days with the exact same dialogue. Finally we had this exchange on day 4:
SDM: You still sound busy.
NANCY: Who are you?
SDM: Sharon Drew Morgen, and this is only a cold call. I can call you back when you're not so busy.
NANCY: What are you selling?
SDM: Training for a facilitated buying model to use with sales.
NANCY: Iâll give you 5 minutes.
SDM: Not enough.
NANCY: 10 minutes.
SDM: Not enough.
NANCY: OK. Iâm yours. But I want to know how you just did what you did. How did you get me to speak with you? How do I feel so respected when youâre cold calling me? How did you get me to give you so much time? And can you teach my sales team how to do that? Can you come next month? [Note: I ended up training with them for two years. I didnât even have to pitch.]
Both of us listened with our Witness hats on. Nancy heard my Metamessage: by immediately hanging up after getting a time, she âheardâ me say that I respected her time. Calling back at the requested time told her I was responsible. Telling her it was a sales cold told her I was honest and wasnât going to manipulate her. And by me abiding to her time frame she abided to mine. Indeed, I âsaidâ none of those things in words; the meaning was the message I intended to send. My goal was to connect if possible and serve if able. To connect, Iâd have to value her time, not push; to serve Iâd be honest and responsible. So she âheardâ me, beyond the words. It was win/win.
So hereâs a suggestion: For those times itâs important to understand the underlying meaning of anotherâs communication, and you cannot risk biases and assumptions that might significantly alter the outcome, I suggest you go up to the âceilingâ and listen from Witness/Observer.
This is a great tool for those of you who are Active Listening proponents. When listening to correctly capture the words spoken, understand your brain will bias how you interpret them and you may not achieve clarity as to the intent of the message. In my experience, AL doesnât ensure understanding and too often puts the âblameâ of misunderstanding on the Speaker.
Try listening from the âceilingâ from Witness/Observer. It might make a difference. And if thatâs not comfortable at least clear a way to understanding in each important conversation:
Before we continue, I just want to make sure I understand what you mean to say.
Hereâs what I heardâŚ. Is that accurate?
Communication is delicate, as are relationships. Take the time to ensure you and your Communication Partner are on the same page. And delight that a shared understanding inspires possibility.
Sharon Drew Morgen is the visionary behind Buying FacilitationÂŽ - a change management model that includes learning how to Listen for Systems, formulating Facilitative Questions, and understanding the steps of systemic change. For those of you wishing to learn more, take a look at the program syllabus. Please visit www.dirtylittlesecrets.com and read the two free chapters. Consider reading it with the companion ebook Buying FacilitationÂŽ
Sharon Drew is the author of the NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling With Integrity, as well as 6 other books on helping buyers buy. She is also the author of the Amazon bestseller What? Did you really say what I think I heard? Sharon Drew keynotes, trains and coaches sales teams to help them unlock situations that are stalled, and teaches teams how to present and prospect by facilitating the complete buying decision process. She delivers keynotes at annual sales conferences globally. Sharon Drew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 512 771 1117
Contributor: Sharon Drew Morgen
Published here on: 01-Jul-18