Listening Biases: How Influencers Unwittingly Restrict Possibilities

Do you enter conversations with a goal, or set of expectations? Do you assume you’ll have solutions for your Communication Partners (CPs)? Do you listen carefully to pose the best questions to enable you to fulfill your expectations? Do you assume the responses to your questions provide an accurate representation of the full fact pattern – ‘good’ data – to base your follow-on questions on? Do you assume your history of similar topics provides a route to an optimal outcome?

If any of the above are true, you’re biasing your conversation.

  • By entering conversations with assumptions and personal goals,
  • and listening according to historic, unconscious, self-directed filters,
  • you unwittingly direct conversations
  • to your range of expectations and familiarity
  • and potentially miss a more optimal outcome.

In other words, your unconscious inhibits and biases optimal results. But it’s not your fault.

Our Brains Cause a Gap Between What’s Said and What’s Heard

The most surprising takeaway from my year of research for my book on closing the gap between what’s said and what’s heard was learning how little of what we think we hear is unbiased, or even accurate. Indeed, it’s pretty rare for us to hear precisely what another intends us to hear. Yet that doesn’t stop us from translating what’s said into what we want to hear.

Employing biases, assumptions, triggers, memory tricks, and habit (filters that act as information sieves) our brains take a habitual route when listening to others, alter and omit at will, and don’t even tell us what’s been transformed, regardless of our desire to be neutral. So the Other might say ABC and our brains actually tell us they said ABL. I once lost a business partner because he ‘heard’ me say X when three of us confirmed I said Y. “I was right here! Why are you all lying to me! I KNOW she said that!” And he walked out in a self-generated rage.

Indeed, as outsiders, we cannot ever know the full range of givens within our CPs innermost thinking. Every person, every situation, every conversation is unique. And given variances in our beliefs/values, background, identity, etc., our inability to accurately hear exactly what is intended causes us to unintentionally end up working with data of unknowable accuracy, causing a restricted, speculative route to understanding or success.

Net net, we unwittingly base our conversation, goals, questions, intuitive responses and offerings on an assumption of what we think has been said, and we fully succeed only with those whose biases match our own. [Note: for those who want to manage this problem, I’ve developed a work-around in Chapter 6 of What?)

Entering Conversations Without Bias

The problem is compounded when we enter and continue conversations with unconscious biases that further restrict possibility. Because of the potential constraints, we must take extra care to enter and guide conversations without bias. But our natural listening habits make that difficult:

  1. by biasing the framework of the conversation to the goals we wish to achieve, we overlook alternative, congruent outcomes. Sellers, coaches, leaders, and managers often enter conversations with expectations and goals rather than collaboratively setting a viable frame and together discovering possibility.
  2. by listening only for what we’re (consciously or unconsciously) focused on hearing, we overlook a broader range of possible outcomes. Sellers, negotiators, leaders, help desk professionals, and coaches often listen for what they want to hear so they can say what they want/are trained to say, or pose biased questions, and possibly miss real opportunities to promote agreement.

Once we have expectations, success is restricted to the overlap between our needs and the CPs; the real problems and solutions lie outside. Here are some ideas to help you create conversations that avoid restriction:

  1. Shift your goal as an influencer to facilitating the route to change. You’ll never have the full fact pattern, or the weight and implications of each element that has created and maintains the status quo. But you can lead a route to change using systems thinking and enabling your CP to engage their own change, congruently.
  2. Enter each conversation with a willingness to serve the greater good within the bounds of what you have to offer, rather than meet a specific outcome. Any expectations or goals limit outcomes. The Other’s outcome will become obvious to them.
  3. Enter with a blank brain, as a neutral navigator, servant leader, change facilitator.
  4. Trust that your CP has her own answers. Your job is to help her find them. This is particularly hard for coaches and leaders who believe they must influence the outcome toward a goal, or use their expertise to help the person change the way the influencer believes they should. (And yes, all influencers, sellers, leaders, negotiators, and coaches are guilty of this.)
  5. Stay away from data gathering. Stick to understanding how the status quo became established, and directing systemic change from there. Your biased questions will only extract biased answers. Use questions focused on change because you’ll never gather the full fact pattern anyway. Neutral questions like “What has stopped you from making the change before now?” is an example of a question addressed to systemic change. [Note: I’ve developed Facilitative Questions that eschew information gathering and lead systemic change through unconscious thinking patterns.]
  6. Make ‘discovery of a route to congruent change’ your goal, not a specific behavior.
  7. Get rid of your ego, your need to be right or smart or have the answers. Until your CP finds a way to recognize their own unconscious issues, and design congruent change that matches their idiosyncratic ‘givens’, you aren’t helpful regardless of how much you think you know.

Here are the steps everyone goes down to discover their own answers:

  1. What is the complete landscape of the status quo? The hidden elements that caused, and perpetuate, the current state?
  2. How has the person attempted to fix the problem until now? What caused her to fail? How has she continued to maintain her current behaviors? Why isn’t this still working now (regardless of success or failure, all systems create and maintain their status quo for Systems Congruence)?
  3. What internal capabilities does he have, but may be used for other actions, to substitute more helpful choices? What has stopped him from making this substitution until now?
  4. What does the client think he’s missing to get him to success, and how might he use you to help?

By assuming your client has his own answers hidden in his unconscious that just need to be found, by acting merely as a facilitator, by eschewing information gathering questions and pitches, you can help Others design their own fix, avoid bias, stop wasting time on those who will never buy-in, and truly serve another. You won’t have the type of control you’re used to, but thinking with a systems brain, you’ll have a much more powerful control: you’ll be facilitating real change.

About the Author

Sharon Drew MorgenSharon Drew Morgen is a visionary, original thinker, and thought leader in change management and decision facilitation. She works as a coach, trainer, speaker, and consultant, and has authored 9 books including the New York Times Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity. Morgen developed the Buying Facilitation® method ( in 1985 to facilitate change decisions, notably to help buyers buy and help leaders and coaches affect permanent change. Her newest book What? explains how to close the gap between what’s said and what’s heard. She can be reached at [email protected]

How to Listen to Hear What’s Intended

StrategyDriven Practices for Professional ArticleLike most of us, I assume I understand what my communication partner is saying and respond appropriately. I don’t think about it; I just do it. I don’t realize anything is wrong until it’s too late. But why do I make that assumption? I was never taught how to hear what others meant to convey.

From kindergarten through university, there are no programs taught on how to accurately hear what others intend to convey or how to make adjustments if there is a breakdown. Current Active Listening models don’t go far enough into the problems of misinterpretation: how, exactly, do our brains make it so difficult for us to avoid biasing what it hears? And what’s the cost to us in terms of relationships, creativity, and corporate success?

What is Listening?

Our listening skills seem to be largely intuitive: we instinctively know how to listen to music and to listen carefully when getting directions to a wedding. But sometimes we mishear or misinterpret what someone said. Or interpret something incorrectly and adamantly believe we are correct. Or lose a client or friend because we’ve not really heard their underlying message. Sometimes we listen for the wrong thing, or listen only to a part of the message.

Do we even know what listening is? We all recognize it as a core communication skill – core to our lives, our relationships, our ability to earn a living and share ideas and feelings. But how do we do it? And how do we do it right – and know when we are doing it wrong? Who’s to blame when we get it wrong? Are there skills that would enable effective listening in every conversation?

My broad interests and unique professional life have brought me in contact with an extensive range of people and situations. Along the way I’ve had thousands of successful conversations with people from many walks of life and in 63 countries. The conversations I found frustrating were my communication partner’s fault. Or so I’d like to think.

My lifelong curiosity with listening was piqued to the point of finally writing this book when reflecting on a seemingly simple conversation I heard at the tail end of a meditation retreat:

Transportation Guy: “You can either leave your luggage near the back of the go-cart and we’ll take it down the hill for you, or you can bring it down yourself.”

Woman: “Where should I leave it if I do it myself?”

Transportation Guy: “Just put it in your car.”

Woman: “No… Just tell me where I can leave it off. I want to walk it down myself when I go to the dining room.”

Transportation Guy: “Just put it in your car. I don’t know why you’re not understanding me. Just. Walk. It. Down. And. Put. It. In. Your. Car.”

A simple exchange. Simple words, spoken clearly. Words with universally recognized definitions. Yet those two folks managed to confound and confuse each other, and instead of asking for clarity they assumed the other was being obtuse.

Indeed, it sounded like they were having two different conversations, each with unique assumptions: the man assumed everyone had a car; the woman assumed there was a specific space set aside for suitcases.

The missing piece, of course, was that the woman was being picked up by a friend and didn’t have a car. The transportation guy didn’t ask for the missing piece and the woman didn’t offer it. When they didn’t get the responses they sought, they each got exasperated by the other’s intractability and, most interesting to me, were unable to get curious when confused. Two sets of assumptions, reference points, and world views using the same language. And when the communication broke down both thought they were right.

Why We Misunderstand

Because we filter out or fabricate so much of what is being said, we merely hear what our brains want us to hear and ignore, misunderstand, or forget the rest. And then we formulate our responses as if our assumptions were true. Our communications are designed merely to convey our internal assumptions, and how people hear us are based on their internal assumptions.

So it merely seems like we are having conversations. We are not; we are just assuming what we hear means something, leaping to false conclusions based on what our brains choose, and blaming the other person when the communication falters. Surprising we don’t have more misunderstandings than we do.

How humbling to realize that we limit our entire lives – our spouse, friends, work, neighborhood, hobbies – by what our brains are comfortable hearing. We are even held back or elevated in our jobs depending on our ability to communicate across contexts. Our listening skills actually determine our life path. And we never realize how limited our choices are.

Would it be best for us to communicate only with those we already know? Seems the odds of us truly hearing and being heard are slim otherwise: unless the speaker’s intent, shared data, history and beliefs are so similar to ours as to share commonality, the odds of understanding another’s intent – and hence what they are really trying to tell us – are small.

But make no mistake: the way we listen works well-enough. We’ve constructed worlds in which we rarely run into situations that might confound us, and when we do we have an easy out: blame the other person.

What if it’s possible to have choice? In Did You Really Say What I Think I Heard, I break down filters, biases, assumptions and communication patterns to enable every reader to truly hear what their Communication Partner intends them to hear, diminish misinterpretation, and expand creativity, leadership, and management.

This article is an excerpt from Sharon Drew Morgen’s new book Did You Really Say What I Think I Heard? coming out in late 2014 with AMACOM. Look for it in bookstores.

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.

Want to enhance your or your team’s listening skills? Contact Sharon Drew at [email protected]. Learn about her training programs and speaking topics at

Do you want to push your solution? Or implement creative, collaborative change?

StrategyDriven Change Management ArticleHere’s a scenario: as you’re just leaving the house one morning your spouse says to you:

I think we need to move.

Huh! How interesting! You tell her you’ll continue the conversation when you get home, and go out the door. On your way home, you see a terrific house with a ‘For Sale’ sign on it, and you buy it. You arrive home with great news:

Honey! I just bought us a new house! We can move next week!

What’s wrong with this story? The problem isn’t the house. In fact, it might even be the best solution. But that’s not the point. And in fact you have no idea if it might be the best solution or not. You haven’t discussed or agreed on how, if, when, why you would move, or how to factor in all of the elements that must be included in any decision to make a change.

  • Do you know your spouse’s criteria around a move? Do you need to be in agreement to move forward with any decisions or action? Is there some piece of information your spouse needs to share that you are unaware of that is driving the need to make a change and has been hidden from you until now?
  • What is the commensurate level of involvement for everyone on the Decision Team (i.e. family members in this case)? How will their level of involvement bias the outcome/need or where/if/when a move is necessary? What if there are several competing factors – i.e. is nearness to a school vs closeness to a job?
  • What issues would need to be agreed upon for a solution to get group consensus and buy-in?
  • What does the housing market look like for the sale of your house? How much is it worth and how much could you spend on a new one? What would be the time factor?

In sales, coaching, change implementations, or negotiating, the focus has been on ‘the house’. And you end up with resistance, delayed sales cycles, implementations studded with costly errors and insufficient data, regardless of the efficacy of your solution. A description of the house is the very last thing you need.

To have greater success, you’d need to begin your initiative – whether it’s sales, change management, leadership, or negotiation – by facilitating the components of systemic change first. Here’s a rule:

Until or unless everyone and everything that will touch the final solution agrees to a change, knows how to adapt congruently, and adds their two cents, they cannot buy/change.

The solution is the very last thing to take into account. Until the above happens, you might end up with the wrong house, in the wrong neighborhood, at the wrong price, with the wrong number of bedrooms. It’s not about the house.

There is no need for long sales cycles, resistance, or faulty implementations so long as you add a facilitation capability to your initiatives. Let’s start a conversation and discuss your failed initiatives, and between us, figure out new ways to have greater success.

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.

Want to enhance your or your team’s listening skills? Contact Sharon Drew at [email protected]. Learn about her training programs and speaking topics at

Assessment: How much do you stink at listening?

StrategyDriven Business Communications Article
Answer these questions to see how accurately you hear what your communication partner intends you to hear, and how much business you are losing as a result.

  1. How often do you enter conversations to hear what you want to hear – and disregard the rest?
  2. How often do you listen to get your own agenda across, regardless of the needs of the speaker?
  3. How often do you have a bias in place before the speaker’s points or agenda are known?
  4. Do you ever assume what the speaker wants from you before he/she states it – whether your assumption is accurate or not?
  5. How often do you listen merely to confirm you are right… and the other person is wrong?
  6. Do you ever enter a conversation without any bias, filters, assumptions, or expectations? What would need to happen for you to enter all conversations with a totally blank slate? Do you have the tools to make that possible?
  7. Because your filters, expectations, biases, and assumptions strongly influence how you hear what’s intended, how do you know that your natural hearing skills enable you to achieve everything you might achieve in a conversation?
  8. How much business have you lost because of your inability to choose the appropriate modality to hear and interpret through?
  9. How many relationships have you lost by driving conversations where you wanted them to be rather than a path of collaboration that would end up someplace surprising?

As I am writing my new book, Did You Really Say What I Think I Heard? I’ve gotten notes from all around the world: everyone thinks they listen accurately. Ah… But do they hear what’s intended?

It’s physiologically impossible to accurately hear what our communication partner intends us to hear. We have biases, filters, triggers, assumptions, and habits that get in the way. And people don’t accurately represent what they mean for us to hear, leaving out details that they assume will be understood and aren’t, or choosing words that have different meanings for listeners. Or the situation we find ourselves in has any range of situational biases that make it difficult. We hear according to our education, family history, religious beliefs, political beliefs, age, ethnicity…

Are you getting the picture here? Not even close to possible. So what is it we are defending? What is so important about believing we hear what’s intended when we don’t – and it’s not even possible?

My new book will break down the good, the bad, and the ugly of how we hear, why we don’t, where we have problems (lots of assessments and fun exercises), and ways to fix it. Lots of funny examples of just plain dumb conversations between really smart people. And trust me: my snarky personality will lead readers through the process. I can’t wait until it comes out next year.

Email me with questions about listening. Speak to others about the project. Let’s make ‘hearing what’s intended’ the new buzz phrase. Because if we all can hear what’s intended, we can make a huge difference in the world.

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.

Want to enhance your or your team’s listening skills? Contact Sharon Drew at [email protected]. Learn about her training programs and speaking topics at

Leadership Inspirations – Listening

“Think of all the times in your life when you learned something, when you discovered something new. When this happened, were you speaking or listening?”

Lucas Ives

Verizon Wireless

When speaking, you are providing information and when listening, you are receiving information. It may be nothing new, but then again, it may be new, important or even life changing. Take the time to listen and maybe, the next time you really do need to speak, the information you provide will be new to the listener. It may actually be important to them, or even life changing.