We Don’t Know How to Hear Each Other: how biases distort our conversations
As a Buddhist, I don’t understand why anyone would want to take another’s life or how it’s even an option. Yet so many in our country are feeling disempowered and ignored, targeted and disenfranchised and we haven’t yet created a dialogue to heal. In fact, we don’t even know how to hear each other. During this time of racial, class, political, gender, and education divide, of distrust and blame and victimhood, of killing and guns and violence, our inability to deeply hear each other is heartbreaking and costly.
I’m not going into the moral issues of Right/Wrong here. But I can offer my bit to make it possible to find solutions.
The Problem: How Our Brains Listen
During the 3 years researching and writing a book on closing the gap between what’s said and what’s heard, I learned how ubiquitous our challenge is: the distance between our subjective experiences and cultures makes it almost impossible to accurately hear others outside of our own ingrained biases, assumptions, and triggers. Indeed, words can’t be correctly translated when the intended meaning gets lost in another’s unfamiliar mind-set, culture, and history; the possibility of finding collaboration and reconciliation gets lost in our communication.
Heartfelt intent and tears aside, we’ve not been taught how to listen without bias. From the individual spots we each stand in, with our restricting viewpoints and hot-buttons, we pose biased questions and make faulty assumptions, overlooking the possibility that our Communication Partner (CP) may have similar foundational beliefs that we just don’t know how to recognize.
Unfortunately, our brain causes the problem. It translates what’s been said into what’s comfortable or inflammatory or habitual or or… and doesn’t realize it has misunderstood, or mistranslated the Speaker’s intent. So we actually hear ABL when our CP said ABC and we have no reason to think what we we’ve ‘heard’ is faulty. I lost a partnership this way. During a conversation, John got annoyed at something he thought I said. I tried to correct him:
“That’s not what I said.” I told him.
“I know what I heard! Don’t try to get away with anything here!
“But I didn’t say that at all!
“John, I was sitting right here. She’s right. She never said that,” said his wife.
“You’re both lying!!! I’m outta here!!” And he stomped out of the room, ending our partnership.
It’s pernicious: our brains select a translation for us, reducing whole conversations and categories of people to caricature and subjective assumption. But to distinguish what’s meant from what we think we hear, to experience what others want to convey when it’s out of our experience, we must recognize when it’s time to make a new choice.
How To Do How
We need a way forward to choose behaviors that maintain our Beliefs, Values, and Identity AND find common ground to listen to each other and come to consensus with action steps to help us all heal. I’m going to offer some steps for us to dialogue and reach win/win consensus. But first I’ll a few foundational truths:
- Everyone’s experience and history is valid, unique, and guides their choices.
- Others cannot see or feel what you see or feel.
- Everyone has a right to the same basics: health, a living wage, good work, safety for our families, education.
- All change, including adopting new ideas, is threatening to the status quo and will cause resistance unless there is buy-in at the level of beliefs.
- recognize common beliefs and values we can buy-in to without impairing our individual values,
- feel safe in conversations when it feels like we’re speaking with enemies,
- override our resistance and biases to find common intentions, compassion and outcomes,
- be able to hear another’s intended message without overlaying our biases, assumptions, and habits.
I’ve put together a few action steps to begin to dialogue with those we’ve historically sat in opposition to. I also recommend that our conversations must work toward win/win. I call this a We Space.
1. Get agreement for a dialogue: It’s likely that you and your CP have different goals and life experiences. Begin by agreeing to have a conversation to do nothing more than find common ground.
- “I’d like to have a dialogue that might lead to us to an agreeable route forward that meets both of our goals. If you agree, do you have thoughts on where you’d like to begin?”
- “I wonder if we can find common goals so we might possibly find some agreement to work from. I’m happy to share my goals with you; I’d like to hear yours as well. ”
2. Set the frame for common values: We all have similar foundational values, hopes and fears – they’re just different. Start by ‘chunking up’ to find agreement.
- “I’d like to find a way to communicate that might help us find a common values so we can begin determining if there are places we can agree. Any thoughts on how you’d like to proceed?”
- “It seems we’re in opposite mind-sets. What might be a comfortable way forward for us to discover if there is any agreement at all we can start from?”
3. Enter without bias: With limiting beliefs or hidden agendas, there’s no way to find commonality. Replace emotions and blame with a new bias, just for this conversation: the ‘bias’ of collaboration.
- ‘I’m willing to find common ground and put aside my normal reactions for this hour but it will be a challenge since I’m so angry. Do you want to share your difficulty in this area, or are you ok with it and can help me? How do we move forward without bias?’
4. Get into Observer: In case you have difficulty overcoming your biases and filters, here’s a physiological ‘How-To’ that comes straight from NLP: in your mind’s eye, see yourself up on the ceiling, looking down on yourself and your CP. It will virtually remove you from the fray, and offer an unbiased view of your interaction – one step removed as it were. One way to do this is to walk around during the conversation, or sit way, way back in a chair. Sitting forward keeps you in your biases. (Chapter 6 in What? teaches how to do this.)
5. Notice body language/words: Your CP is speaking/listening from beliefs, values, history, feelings, exhibited in their body language and eye contact. From your ceiling perch, notice how their physical stance matches their words, the level of passion, feelings, and emotion. Now look down and notice how you look and sound in relation to your CP. Just notice. Read Carol Goman’s excellent book on the subject.
6. Notice triggers: The words emphasized by your CP hold their beliefs and biases. They usually appear at the very beginning or end of a sentence. You may also hear absolutes: Always, Never; lots of You’s may be the vocabulary of blame. Silence, folded arms, a stick-straight torso may show distrust. Just notice where/when it happens and don’t take it personally – it’s not personal. Don’t forget to notice your own triggers, or blame/victim words of your own. If their words trigger you into your own subjective viewpoints, get yourself back into Observer; you’ll have choice from the ceiling. But just in case:
- “I’m going to try very hard to speak/listen without my historic biases. If you find me getting heated, or feel blame, I apologize as that’s not my intent. If this should happen, please tell me you’re not feeling heard and I’ll do my best to work from a place of compassion and empathy.”
7. Summarize regularly: Because the odds are bad that you’ll actually hear what your CP means to convey, it’s necessary to summarize what you hear after every exchange:
- “Sounds to me like you said, “XX”. Is that correct? What would you like me to understand that I didn’t understand or that I misheard?”
8. ‘I’ statements: Stay away from ‘You’ if possible. Try to work from the understanding that you’re standing in different shoes and there is no way either of you can see the other’s landscape.
- “When I hear you say X it sounds to me like you are telling me that YY. Is that true?”
- “When I hear you mention Y, I feel like Z and it makes me want to get up from the table as I feel you really aren’t willing to hear me. How can we handle this so we can move forward together?”
9. Get buy-in each step of the way: Keep checking in, even if it seems obvious that you’re on the same page. It’s really easy to mistranslate what’s been said when the listening filters are different.
- “Seems to me like we’re on the same page here. I think we’re both saying X. Is that true? What am I missing?”
- “What should I add to my thinking that I’m avoiding or not understanding the same way you are? Is there a way you want me to experience what it looks like from your shoes that I don’t currently know how to experience? Can you help me understand?”
10. Check your gut: Notice when/if your stomach gets tight, or your throat hurts. These are sure signs that your beliefs are being stepped on. If that happens, make sure you get back up to the ceiling, and then tell your CP:
- “I’m experience some annoyance/anger/fear/blame. That means something we’re discussing is going against one of my beliefs or values. Can we stop a moment and check in with each other so we don’t go off the rails?”
11. Get agreement on the topics in the conversation: One step at a time; make sure you both agree to each item, and skip the ones (for now) where there’s no agreement. Put them in a Parking Lot for your next conversation.
12. Get agreement on action items: Simple steps for forward actions should become obvious; make sure you both work on action items together.
13. Get a time on the calendar for the next meeting: Make sure you discuss who else needs to be brought into the conversation, end up with goals you can all agree on and walk away with an accurate understanding of what’s been said and what’s expected.
Until or unless we all hold the belief that none of us matter if some of us don’t; until or unless we’re all willing to take the responsibility of each needless death or killing; until or unless we’re each willing to put aside our very real grievances to seek a higher good, we’ll never heal. It’s not easy. But by learning how to hear each other with compassion and empathy, our conversations can begin. We must be willing to start sharing our Truth and our hearts. It’s the only real start we can make.
About the Author
Sharon 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 NYTimes Business BestsellerSelling with Integrity. Morgen developed the Buying Facilitation® method (www.sharondrewmorgen.com) in 1985 to facilitate change decisions, notably to help buyers buy and help leaders and coaches affect permanent change. Her newest book What? www.didihearyou.com explains how to close the gap between what’s said and what’s heard. She can be reached at [email protected]