You Hear What You Want To Hear

We’ve suspected this, and let me confirm it. We hear what we want to hear, not what’s actually said. Here are 4 reasons why that happens, and 3 ways to change it.

Listening is more of a psychological process than a physical act.

Physically, we hear words and take them in. From there, it’s all psychological. Because we must process and interpret the words we heard. Not just the words, but the non-verbal communication as well.

Listening is more of a psychological process than a physical act. Click To Tweet

4 Reasons We Hear What We Want To Hear

Even if you’re paying attention, there are psychological factors that make it difficult for you to hear what was said, and meant. Here are four:

  1. Non-verbal communication, such as tone of voice, pace of speaking, volume, eye contact, posture, etc. give us clues as to the meaning of the words we hear. If there is a mismatch between the verbal and the nonverbal communication, people will put greater weight on the nonverbal. Yet, nonverbal clues are open to widely varying interpretations. If you feel irritated or threatened by the speaker, you may interpret the person to be speaking in a loud voice, or in a condescending way, even though other listeners wouldn’t interpret it this way.
  2. Confirmation bias is the unconscious way we take in information that matches our previous thoughts on the topic. If, through your previous experience with a person, you view them as lazy, then you will tend to notice information that confirms your opinion of them. You will also ignore information that contradicts your belief. Unfortunately, humans consistently behave in these ways. It takes a concerted effort to not listen through our confirmation bias.
  3. Our minds categorize what we hear into our own experience. When someone shares about a conflict, our minds go to the conflicts we’ve been in or heard about. Even though the people and the situation are totally different, our minds find parallels in our experience. All this match-making of facts limits our listening and prompts our advice-giving.
  4. The flip side of #3 is that if we have little experience with something we tend to not hear what they are saying. I see this frequently when training action-oriented leaders to listen. They hear any small opening to next steps, but are deaf to hearing and exploring internal, personal reasoning that deals with emotions, beliefs, and self-image.

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How To Hear What Is Said, and Meant

Our minds are busy hearing what we want to hear, so how do we hear what is said, and meant? It takes a bit of discipline, but you can do it.

If you think you know, then you're not fully listening. Click To Tweet

My basic approach follows one of the greatest business consultants, Peter Drucker, who wrote, “My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.”

  1. Don’t assume you understand. If you think you know, then you won’t fully listening. “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows,” Epictetus wrote.
  2. Be curious. I use this motto to keep me listening: “I hear this and this, but I wonder what else is happening?” This approach doesn’t immediately reject what I hear, but keeps me curious about what else is being communicated.
  3. Ask questions. Ask clarifying questions, not to confirm your understanding, but to explore. “What do you mean by ‘I want to be a better leader’?” will draw out more information from the other person. It may also cause the other person to reflect more deeply, resulting in their own new awareness.

Listening is a lot more than a physical act. Our minds make biased interpretations of what we hear. These interpretations cause us to hear what we want to hear.

Instead, disciple yourself to remain open and ask questions to find out what the other person really means. The thing is, they may not fully understand what they mean either. By asking and listening you both can communicate fully.

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    Keith is President of Creative Results Management. He helps busy leaders multiply their impact. Keith is the author of several books including The COACH Model for Christian Leaders.

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