ListeningWhat if it were true that we only understand a fraction of what others say to us? And if true, what can we do about it?

As someone who has taken great pride in accurately hearing what others say, I was annoyed to discover that it’s pretty impossible for any listeners to achieve any consistent level of accuracy. The problem is not the words – we hear those, albeit we only remember them for less than 3 seconds and not in the proper order (Remember the game of Telephone we played as kids?). The problem is how we interpret them.


When researching my new book What? Did you really say what I think I heard? I learned that our brains arbitrarily delete or redefine anything our Communication Partners (CPs) say that might be uncomfortable or atypical. Unfortunately, we then believe that what we think we’ve heard – a subjective translation of what’s been said – is actually what was said or meant. It’s usually some degree of inaccurate. And it’s not our fault. Our brains do it to us.

Just as our eyes take in light that our brains interpret into images, so our ears take in sound that our brains interpret into meaning. And because interpreting everything we hear is overwhelming, our brain takes short cuts and habituates how it interprets. So when John has said X, and  Mary uses similar words or ideas days or years later, our brains tell us Mary is saying X. It’s possible that neither John nor Mary said X at all, or if they did their intended meaning was different; it will seem the same to us.

Not only does habit get in the way, but our brains use memory, triggers, assumptions, and bias – filters – to idiosyncratically interpret the words spoken. Everything we hear people say is wholly dependent upon our unique and subjective filters. It’s automatic and unconscious: we have no control over which filters are being used. Developed over our lifetimes, our filters categorize people and social situations, interpret events, delete references, misconstrue ideas, and redefine intended meaning. Without our permission.

As a result, we end up miscommunicating, mishearing, assuming, and misunderstanding, producing flawed communications at the best of times although it certainly seems as if we’re hearing and interpreting accurately. In What?  I have an entire chapter of stories recounting very funny conversations filled with misunderstandings and assumptions. My editor found these stories so absurd she accused me of inventing them. I didn’t.

It starts when we’re children: how and what we hear other’s say gets determined when we’re young. And to keep us comfortable, our brains kindly continue these patterns throughout our lives, causing us to restrict who we have relationships with, and determine our professions, our friends, and even where we live.


Why does this matter? Not because it’s crucial to accurately understand what others want to convey – which seems obvious – but to connect. The primary reason we communicate is to connect with others.

Since our lives are fuelled by connecting with others, and our imperfect listening inadvertently restricts what we hear, how can we remain connected given our imperfect listening skills? Here are two ways and one rule to separate ‘what we hear’ from the connection itself:

  1. For important information sharing, tell your CP what you think s/he said before you respond.
  2. When you notice your response didn’t get the expected reaction, ask your CP what s/he heard you say.

Rule: If what you’re doing works, keep doing it. Just know the difference between what’s working and what’s not, and be willing to do something different the moment it stops working. Because if you don’t, you’re either lucky or unlucky, and those are bad odds.

Now let’s get to the connection issue. Here’s what you will notice at the moment your connection has been broken:

  • A physical or verbal reaction outside of what you assumed would happen;
  • A sign of distress, confusion, annoyance, anger;
  • A change of topic, an avoidance, or a response outside of the expected interchange.

Sometimes, if you’re biasing you’re listening to hear something specific, you might miss the cues of an ineffective reaction. Like when, for example, sales people or folks having arguments merely listen for openings to say that they want, and don’t notice what’s really happening or the complete meaning being conveyed.

Ultimately, in order to ensure an ongoing connection, to make sure everyone’s voice is heard and feelings and ideas are properly conveyed, it’s most effective to remove as many listening filters as possible. Easier said than done, of course, as they are built in. (What? teaches how to fix this.) In the meantime, during conversations, put yourself in Neutral; rid yourself of biases and assumptions when listening; regularly check in with your Communication Partner to make sure your connection is solid. Then you’ll have an unrestricted connection with your CP that enables sharing, creativity, and candor.


Sharon Drew Morgen is the author of 7 books on sales/Buying Facilitation® including NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and Dirty Little Secrets. Her new book What? is considered a game-changer in the field of Listening, and is useful in all business and personal conversations. Sharon Drew has created online learning material that corresponds with What? and is available for coaching, training, and speaking.

Share Button

September 28th, 2015

Posted In: Listening