By Sharon Drew Morgen

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Addressing Diversity Through Listening

DiversityDiversity is vital, yet often difficult to attain due to barriers of communication and biases, making assimilation complicated. We know that by diversifying our companies, our schools, our neighborhoods we’re capable of creating all that’s possible; without diversity we limit who gets heard, who gets to lead, what knowledge we deem important, what we teach our children, what creativity looks like. Indeed, misrepresenting and under representing categories of people cost an unimaginable price in money, possibilities, and life. And yet our unconscious biases seem to restrict our choices.

People much smarter than I have evaluated the high cost of the lack of diversity and offered behavioral approaches to change. But I’d like to offer a modest way to begin the process of overriding our biases: we can shift how we listen.

BIASES ARE SILENT, STEALTHY EXECUTIONERS

While researching my new book (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?) I learned that the listening process involves 1. our ears collecting and funneling the sounds of words spoken, then 2. our brain (filtering meaning subjectively through our own unique, cultural, and historic beliefs, values, rules, etc.) interprets meaning from the sounds. In other words, every one of us hears, interprets, understands, and biases an incoming message uniquely, through our personal subjective filters, regardless of the accuracy. The problem is compounded when our brain filters what’s been said, it forgets to tell us what it omitted from a Speaker’s meaning, causing us to believe that we’ve heard accurately. Our biases and assumptions potentially lead us to misinterpretations, or worse. And we sometimes aren’t even aware it’s happening.

The way our filters work, the job of our biases and assumptions is to notice ‘differences’. As a result, we may unconsciously, and quite quickly, deem a person ‘unsafe’ (judged against our status quo), causing automatic prejudice outside conscious awareness. I heard Malcom Gladwell, the noted author of Blink say in an interview that when tested for unconscious racial bias, his results revealed something like a 53% bias against African-Americans – and he’s half black. And because these historic prejudices become part of our automatic thought process, we end up living and thinking in bubbles of our own making. The ideas, the capability, the innovation that gets lost is unimaginable.

At a dinner party once a man at my table discussed what I knew to be a naïve idea in my area of expertise. I ‘kindly’ explained to him the error of his ways. He merely smiled and ignored me, while everyone else at the table seemed to be annoyed. I was confused. After all, I was ‘right’! Afterwards I learned that I had been admonishing a Nobel Laureate (in a different field than mine). Had I known that, I might have listened to his ideas as merely different or even interesting. Ditto if he knew I was a noted expert on the topic. Maybe together we could have changed the world in a unique and wonderful way. Instead, we listened to the other with biased, judging, ego-filled ears. What would we each have needed to believe differently to be able to hear each other without restriction?

On another occasion my biases potentially kept the world from glorious music. Visiting an ill friend at a nursing home recently I chatted with the orderly on staff. Whatever he heard me say motivated him to ask me to mentor him. I’m embarrassed to admit I declined. Thankfully he persisted. I went to his place for a lovely dinner, serenaded by a CD of his wonderous compositions! I coached him going forward, to find funding to make his music available to the public. But I almost missed that opportunity because I immediately judged him negatively.

LISTEN WITHOUT BIAS

A bit of the problem in judging others as ‘different’ lies with how we interpret what we hear. We can take steps to recognize when we are judging, biasing, or assuming, and then supersede our brain’s natural tendencies and listen neutrally:

  • Enter conversations with a bias of listening for all that’s possible.
  • Notice when we begin hearing differences or an internal judgment, and return to concentrating on what’s really being meant.
  • When our internal voice begins judging, reducing, disparaging, or condemning, pose the question to your internal self: What would I hear if I only heard what this person wants to share with me?

If we can at least aspire to hearing what others have to share, we can be further along the path of diversity and avoiding limitations. It’s not easy, as our brains automatically delete and misrepresent the intended meaning of what was said when the message goes against our comfort zone. The problem gets compounded when our brain doesn’t let us know what it omited during its translation process, leaving us to believe what we think we hear was what was said; our interpretations are often inaccurate, regardless of how hard we try to hear accurately. It’s neurological, and not our fault, but this process unfortunately puts us out of choice.

I’ve actually developed tools for those who wish to have choice to listen neutrally – without bias, assumptions, or triggers, and how to do Dissociative Listening that supersedes our habituated listening filters. First read What? Did you really say what I think I heard?. Then go to the Learning Tools on www.didihearyou.com and get the Assessment Tool to identify your biases and the Study Guide to learn how to listen without filters. Or contact me, and we can discuss ways your team can gain new skills for meetings, implementations, sales, HR, or diversity training. It’s time, folks. We need to hear the uniqueness of everyone.

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Sharon Drew Morgen is the NYTimes Business Bestselling author of Selling with Integrity and 7 books on Change Facilitation, including how buyers buy (including Dirty Little Secrets – why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell) and how congruent change occurs. She is the developer of Buying Facilitation® used with sales to help buyers facilitate pre-sales decision issues. She is a sales visionary who coined the terms Helping Buyers Buy, Buy Cycle, Buying Decision Patterns, Buy Path in 1985, and has been working with sales/marketing for 30 years to influence buying decisions.

More recently, Morgen is the author of What? Did You Really Say What I Think I Heard? in which she has coded how we can hear others without bias or misunderstanding, and why there is a gap between what’s said and what’s heard. She is a trainer, consultant, speaker, and inventor, interested in integrity in all business communication. She can be reached at sharondrew@sharondrewmorgen.com. Her award winning blog: www.sharondrewmorgen.com

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