The Arrogance of Listening

When researching my book on the gap between what’s said and what’s heard (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?) I discovered that most people believe they listen accurately, and that any miscommunication or misunderstanding is the fault of the Other.

When my book came out, 20,000 people downloaded it in the first 3 months. I received hundreds of emails from readers profusely thanking me for the book, saying they were going to give it to their spouses/colleagues/clients so THEY could learn to hear to these readers without bias or misunderstanding. Did readers not grasp how our brains are wired to make it highly unlikely we understand what others mean without bias? How was it possible that they missed the fact that ALL brains operate this way, even their own?

I also received calls from managers saying they wanted me to train their teams so they could better listen to each other, and to their clients. Yet none of them hired me. Why? Their teams believed they didn’t need training cuz they listened just fine, thanks, that any miscommunication lie on the side of the client/colleague.

How Often Do We Misunderstand What’s Meant

There are two issues here.

Truth: our brains have constructed unconscious, subjective filters (biases, assumptions, triggers) over the course of our entire lifetimes, making it highly improbable to accurately hear some percentage of what others mean to convey (percentages vary according to how far they are from our own subjective biases). Additionally, our brains subjectively and habitually match what they hear, to stored, historic conversations we’ve had (some from decades ago, some wildly out of context), thereby altering our Communication Partner’s meaning – and what we think they’ve said – accordingly. Unfortunately for us all, it happens at the unconscious, making it difficult for us to change/fix/recognize.

Reality: because our brain only offers us the interpretation it has constructed, (and we have no idea what percentage of this is correct), we believe we ‘hear’ accurately. So if I say ABL and your brain tells you I’ve said ABP, you will fight me to the death that you heard ‘right’, or that I just didn’t remember what I said, without realizing that your brain may have altered the transmission all on its own, without telling you. I had one Active Listening professor wildly mishear and misrepresent what I said, yet claimed I was probably having a Freudian Slip (he actually said that) because what he ‘heard’ was ‘accurate’ and I was mistaken.

Sadly it’s impossible to accurately hear the full extent of what our Communication Partners mean to convey (although we might hear the words [which we remember for 3 seconds]). Obviously with folks we’re in contact with regularly, our brain recognizes those unique communication patterns via habits and memories and does a better job for us. Not so much with people not in our immediate sphere, or when we enter conversations with assumptions and biases that restrict the entire dialogue.

Sometimes We’re Just Wrong

But haven’t we all been burned over time with misunderstandings or assumptions? Haven’t we all realized that maybe, just occasionally, maybe sometimes, that we might have, on a bad day, misunderstood someone? And that it was actually our fault? What’s the deal about needing to be ‘right’?

In a recent conversation with my friend Carol Kinsey Goman (body language guru) we couldn’t figure out why the word ‘listening’ elicited so much denial. Why don’t companies demand their employees listen without bias? To hear clients without assumptions? To walk away from meetings with To-Do lists that actually represent what was agreed to at the meeting? Why is ‘listening’ a ‘soft skill’ when it informs all client interactions, team productivity, and creativity? Why do we assume we listen accurately?

Misunderstanding, misrepresenting, distorting what others say costs us all a lot – in personal capital, money, and possibility. So I ask you:

  • What needs to happen for each of us to recognize that we share 100% of our 50% of conversations? That when one person ‘mishears’ maybe there is a problem between both Communication Partners? That there is a probability of some distortion, and nip it in the bud after every conversation?
  • How will we know that it’s time to check in with our Communication Partner to ensure we’ve understood the same things – before we use the data we collected, or during an intense negotiation, or during/after a conversation or coaching session or employee review?
  • At what point in any misunderstanding or confusion might we be willing to say, “Could you please say that to me a different way?” to make sure you’ve understood the importance of what has been said? What will we hear/feel to recognize there is a problem?
  • What would you need to believe about yourself to admit that you, like every human being with a brain, are at best a mediocre listener? Because once you believe this is true, you might – you just might – be willing to be someone who occasionally misunderstands, or once-in-a-while makes a wrong assumption or mishears. Being Right is an expensive position to hold. At what point is the Greater Good more important than Being Right?

Until we’re all – all – willing to admit that we’re biologically inadequate listeners, and be willing/able to include in dialogues some check points of agreed understanding (not to mention the occasional apology), or learn how to supersede our biases, we will suffer from Arrogance of Listening, and our lives, our relationships, and our incomes, will be restricted.

About the Author

Sharon Drew Morgen is founder of Morgen Facilitations, Inc. ( She is the visionary behind Buying Facilitation®, the decision facilitation model that enables people to change with integrity. A pioneer who has spoken about, written about, and taught the skills to help buyers buy, she is the author of the acclaimed New York Times Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and Dirty Little Secrets: Why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell and what you can do about it.

To contact Sharon Drew at [email protected] or go to to choose your favorite digital site to download your free book.