Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Art of Listening

[Johnathan Clayborn]
As a follow-up article to my post about communication, I elected to continue that line of thought and focus today’s article on listening. As with talking, listening is at the crux of every communication issue, and I’ll explain why.
First, let me start out by making two statements; 1) there is a difference between listening and hearing, and 2) selective hearing is no joke. The latter of those statements is the most absurd to most people so I’ll start there.
Many people often joke about people having “selective hearing” when dealing with communication issues, especially when dealing with; family members, parents and children, spouses, etc. This is absolutely true and is something that afflicts everyone. Yes, some people can learn techniques to minimize this effect and listen better; however, everyone has selective hearing.
Now, before you write me off as a complete crackpot, allow me to explain. Buried deep in our brain is a biological process that psychologists call a “schema”.  A schema is a process that your brain utilizes automatically to sort out the various input signals and decide what information is useful and what’s not. Without this process our brains would become overloaded trying to process every single stimulus and we would drive ourselves insane. Schemas (combined with binocular rivalry) are what are responsible for those fad 3-D image posters. Unfortunately, that example is also the hardest to comprehend. Instead let’s just focus on auditory schemas. We’ve all been in someplace crowded, like a restaurant, or a shopping mall at Christmas time. Almost everyone else in the restaurant or the mall is speaking the same language that we are. They’re all carrying on conversations that we should be able to understand. But yet, to our ears all we hear is incomprehensible chatter while the conversation of your dinner partners is perfectly understandable.
How can this be? Why does your mind separate out what your dinner partners are saying into comprehensible speech whereas everyone else comes across as something more like white noise? This is an example of a schema at work. Your brain is subconsciously sorting out the important signals (your dinner-mates) from the unimportant signals (everyone else). And yet, even while this is going on your brain isn’t completely shutting off the other signals. It’s actively scanning them, looking for “buzzwords”. Buzzwords could be words that represent danger; kill, die, bomb, gun, shoot, etc. A baby’s cry is also not dumped into the useless category due to evolution. However, sometimes, especially if you have something on your mind, your brain will pick up other “buzzwords” that have some meaning to you; Linkin Park, motorcycles, Star Wars, etc. The more value or association that you have with the word, the more likely your brain is to sort it into the useful pile. That’s part of the reason that we hear bits and pieces of other conversations sporadically.
As if that wasn’t bad enough we have other factors working against us too. As humans we have this innate ability in our brains to fill in the missing pieces automatically. It’s a semi-conscious cognitive process. One example of this is the famous Rorschach Tests, known in common vernacular as the “inkblot” tests. In those tests we see a visual pattern and we identify it with something else that is often not what it truly is. There are other types of similar tests where psychologists remove random bits from photographs and ask subjects to identify what is in the picture. Our brains are capable of filling in those missing gaps and coming to the correct answer. And still, yet one more example is the computer-geek language of “leet”. Most of us can read leet without too much issue: 4s d3m0nstr4t3d by th1s 3x4mpl3 0f l33t t3xt h3r3.
The fascinating thing to me is that while many of these ocular anomalies are understood (at least in passing) by the average person, their auditory counterparts are completely lost or ignored. As humans we have this innate ability to “fill in the gaps” in our hearing as well, especially when our full cognitive resources are not devoted to listening or we are otherwise unable to interpret what is being said. The proof of this comes from the plethora of websites devoted to the most common “misheard lyrics” such as; www.kissthisguy.com, www.amiright.com/misheard, and www.misheardlyrics.net.
To share some of my own rather humorous examples; the first time I was watching Star Wars there was a scene in Episode IV: A New Hope where Darth Vader says “There will be no understoppers this time”….or at least that’s what I heard. I promptly searched the dictionary for “understoppers” and came up blank. It wasn’t until many views later I realized that he actually said “there will be no one to stop us this time!” Well, that’s a big difference, especially because that actually makes sense.  And yet, sometimes even today I still hear understoppers despite knowing that he really says.
There’s a song by the late Isreal Kamakawiwo (aka: Brother Iz) called “somewhere over the rainbow”. The first time that I heard that song I heard “K is for spaghetti”. In truth he says “Okay, this one is for Gabby”.
There’s also a song by the singer Kelly Clarkson called “Breakaway”. In that song I heard “I want to go to Walgreens”. In truth she said “I want to feel the warm breeze”…although, in my defense I was thinking about Walgreens as I was having some very serious tooth path and my prescriptions were ready. My first thought was; “wow, she must needs meds too”.
Other people that I know have heard things like “a bowl in a china closet”, or in the scene in City Slickers they heard “I crap in your new” instead of “I crap bigger than you”. I’ve also heard people talk about “we have a flight to Japan” instead of “We have a change of plans”. Other people have taken misheard quotes and applied them out of context. For example, one person I know kept referring to the enemy ships in Star Wars as Century Ships instead of TIE Fighters. The TIE component is really an acronym meaning “Twin Ion Engine” describing how the ship is propelled. However, this person was watching A New Hope and Han Solo makes reference to the TIE Fighters as being sentry ships…although that’s not what they heard. It took us a while to convince him of the truth.
As humorous as these anecdotes are, they are not localized to just one person or even one group of people. There are numerous examples of this type of selective hearing that occurs every day. All of us have done this before, and all of us will do this again. It’s the result of a physiological function of our brains. Sometimes we realize that we’ve misheard something (although we usually blame the other person) and we say to ourselves “what did they say?” But a lot of the time these misinterpretations are so subtle that we don’t even realize that they’ve occurred (even if the singer must have been high when they wrote those lyrics…).
The worst part of all of this is that when you add our brain’s cognitive abilities back into the mix on top of all of these other psychological factors that are already happening it makes listening even much more difficult. And what’s even more interesting is that there’s an indirect relationship between how close we are to a person emotionally versus how well we listen to that person. It sounds crazy, I know, but bear with me.
Our brains are constantly scanning input from our environments, scanning for danger, looking for things that may harm us or may be dangerous in some way. All of us tend to have a skeptical approach to dealing with strangers and people that we don’t know. As a result we also tend to analyze their actions and their speech a little more closely, looking for some subtle clue that can tip us off to their nature. However, with people that we know we tend to be much more relaxed in our cognitive analysis of their behavior. Because of this our brains don’t pay attention as much to what they say and we’re left free to interpret and “fill in the gaps” more in conversations with them.
Admittedly, sometimes this behavior can be as hilarious as the iPhone’s auto-correct feature; generally this behavior can have potentially disastrous results. This is especially true in cases where you may believe that friends or loved ones may have slighted you in some way. When we feel that we’ve been slighted our bodies begin to initiate that “fight or flight” response. This can often lead to couples breaking up, friends or family not speaking for months or years at a time, or spouses engaging in ugly, nasty arguments (which we’ll discuss in more depth in tomorrow’s article, The Art of Arguing).
Now that we are aware that this process and the fact that this behavior is occurring we can take steps to correct it. The first step in correcting behaviors is awareness, which we’ve achieved just by reading this article. We now have an understanding of what is happening within our heads and why it’s so hard for us to listen. The next step is to take active steps to calm ourselves and clarify. Admittedly this is a little harder and it takes practice, but the payoff is immense as you realize that half of the arguments that you’ve had are really about nothing more than selective hearing.
The crucial part of that step, really, is the calm part. If you are not calm before you try to clarify then you run the risk of engaging in confirmation bias as your emotions cloud your judgment. The clarity part is much easier. Clarity can best be achieved by one simple phrase “can you explain what you mean by that, I don’t understand?” With this phrase the wording of the phrase is the key to its use. If you simply say “What do you mean?” or “explain yourself” then your request could be taken the wrong way and the other person may feel as though you are attacking them. By phrasing it this way you’re delivering the message for clarity in a more neutral tone that is much more likely to get an explanation.
Another technique for clarity that you can use is simply rephrasing their statement into a different perspective. Say something like “I just want to understand what you mean. Are you saying….?” Again, the key to this is to deliver this message with a non-aggressive tone or language.
Ponder this information and this advice next time you find yourself in these types of situations. Ask yourself if you are really hearing what the other person means to say, or are you allowing your selective hearing to take over? Always ask for clarity and try to understand what the other person means and focus less on what they say. Sometimes people exercise poor judgment when choosing their words. And I’ll be expanding on this series tomorrow with another article covering the art of arguments, and how to win and lose them.

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