Listening Biases: how we restrict opportunity

I got to the gym yesterday only to find that my regular treadmill had been replaced by a new-fangled computer machine thing. I asked the young woman next to me how to start the damn thing as it wasn’t obvious. Here was the conversation:

SDM: Where’s the start button on this thing?
Woman: Over there. You’ll want to start on 2.3 miles and…
SDM: Thanks for showing me. I’m good now. Thanks.
Woman: You’re starting too high! Plus, you’ll want to put it at an incline of 1% to start, then…
SDM: No. Really. I’m good.
Woman: I’m telling you the right way to do this! I’m a professional trainer! I know what I’m talking about!
SDM: I’m sure you do. But I’m good. Thanks.
Woman: What’s your problem, lady??? You asked me for my advice! I’m just responding to your question! I’M A PROFESSIONAL!

That woman converted my simple request to start a machine into a request for her expertise – what she wanted to hear rather than what I meant – and she was so out of choice (see article on How vs What) that she couldn’t recognize my attempt to disengage from the conversation – three times! But we all do this sort of thing.


Far too often, we shove what someone means to convey into the small box of what we’re listening for and end up tangling or misdirecting conversations – certainly limiting possible outcomes. We’re actually filtering what we hear through our unconscious biases. Let me introduce you to some of the more common ones out of the hundreds of recognized biases:

Confirmation bias: we listen to get personal validation, often using leading questions, to confirm to ourselves that we’re right; we seek out people and ideas to confirm our own views and maintain our status quo.

Expectation bias: we decide what we want to take away from a conversation prior to entering, causing us to only pick out the bits that match and disregarding the rest; we mishear and misinterpret what’s said to conform to our goals.

Status quo bias: we listen to confirm that we’re fine the way we are and reject any information that proves we may be wrong.

Attention bias: we ignore what we don’t want to hear – and often don’t even hear, or acknowledge, something has been said.

Information bias: we gather the information we’ve deemed ‘important’ to push our own agendas or prove a point. When used for data analysis, we often collect information according to expectation bias and selection bias. (This biases scientific and social research, and data analysis.)

And of course, we all have a Bias Blind Spot: we naturally believe we’re not biased – just Right! And anyone that doesn’t believe we’re Right is Wrong.

Our Brains Bias Autonomously

When researching my book on how to close the gap between what’s said and what’s heard, I discovered that our brains only allow us to understand a fraction of what others mean to convey (Note: the fraction depends on different types of familiarity, triggers, history, beliefs, etc.). because our brains seek to ‘protect’ us; unfortunately they don’t even let us know that what was meant isn’t being correctly received. So the woman in the opening story actually heard me ask her for advice.

I believe our success is regulated by our listening biases and our ability – or not – to recognize when/if our biases are getting in the way (I wrote a chapter in What? that offers a skill set on how to do this). Certainly our creativity and opportunities, our choices of jobs, mates, friends, etc. are restricted. The natural biasing we do is compounded by the tricks our brains play with memory and habit, making the probability of factual interpretation, of an intended meaning, pretty slim.

If we can avoid the trap of assuming what we think has been said is accurate, and assume that some portion of what we think has been said might contain some bias, we could take more responsibility for our conversations. Here’s what we’d do:

  • At the end of each conversation, we’d check in with our Communication Partner and get accuracy agreement.
  • Whenever we hear something that sounds like an agreement or a plan, we’d stop the flow of the conversation to check that what we think we heard is accurate.
  • At the end of meetings, we’d check in that our takeaway plans and their outcomes are agreeable.
  • When we hear something ‘different’ we won’t assume the other person wrong, but consider the possibility that we are the ones who heard it wrong.

Knowing the difference between what we think others are saying vs what they actually mean to convey takes on great importance in meetings, coaching calls, negotiations, doctors, and information collection for decision analysts. Let’s get rid of our egos. Let’s begin to put our need to collaborate, pursue win/win communication, and authentic Servant Leadership into all our communication. Otherwise, we’re merely finding situations that maintain our status quo. And we lose the opportunity to be better, stronger, kinder, and more creative.

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 NYTimes Business BestsellerSelling 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]

Questions: The Problems and the Possibilities

I recently accepted a cold call from an insurance guy because I was thinking of switching providers. Instead of facilitating my buying decision, the bias in his questions terminated our connection:

TODD: Hello Ms. Morgen. I’m Todd with XYZ. Are you interested in new car insurance?
SDM: I am.
TODD: Is your main concern lowering your costs?
SDM: No.
TODD: You don’t care about saving money?
SDM: Of course I do.
TODD: So your main concern IS lowering your costs?
SDM: No.
TODD: So what is it?
SDM: I’m interested in a personal connection, in knowing that if I have an accident I will be handled by someone who will take care of me.
TODD: I can promise you I’ll take care of you. My clients love me. Do you want to discuss how much you’ll save?

And, we were done.

Good sellers and coaches pose better questions than Todd’s, of course. But the conversation exemplifies how a Questioner’s biased questions can significantly influence outcomes.

The Bias Inherent in Questions

Questions restrict answers to the assumptions and biases of the Questioner; Responders respond within the limits set by the question. Asking someone “What did you have for breakfast?” won’t elicit the answer “I bought a lamp.” Even questions that attempt to open a dialogue, like “What can you tell me about the problem?” or gather data, like “Who’s in charge of decision making?” merely elicit top-of-mind responses that my not effectively represent – and indeed might cloud – the issue. Biased question; biased answer.

Sometimes questions are so biased and restricted that the real answer might get overlooked. ‘Do you prefer the red ball or the blue ball?’ excludes not only the green ball, but a preference for a bat, or a discussion about the Responder’s color blindness. But a question such as: ‘What sort of a game implement could be easily carried and engage all employees?” might elicit a response of a ball or marbles or Monopoly and include more team members.

Most questions pull or push the data sought by the Questioner, making it difficult to know if:

  • the communication partners make the same assumptions;
  • the wording of the question is ideal;
  • a better answer exists outside the limits of the question;
  • the question encompasses the full set of possible responses.

What if the best answer is outside of the framework of the question? Or the question isn’t translated accurately by the Responder? Or there is an historic bias between the Questioner and Responder that makes communication difficult?

Facilitative Questions

Questions can be used to facilitate choice, to lead Responders to new options within their own (often unconscious) value system, rather than as set ups to the Questioner’s self-serving objectives. Using a Facilitative Question, the above dialogue would sound like this:

TODD: Hi Ms. Morgen. I’m Todd, an insurance agent with XYZ Corp. I’m selling car insurance. Is this a good time to speak?
SDM: Sure.
TODD: I’m wondering: If you are considering changing your insurance provider, what would you need to know about another provider to be certain you’d end up getting the coverage and service you deserve?

The question – carefully worded to match a Responder’s criteria for change – shifts the bias from Todd’s self-serving objectives to enabling me in a true discovery process; from his selling patterns to my buying patterns. How different our interaction would have been if his goal was to facilitate my buying decision path rather than using his misguided persuasion tactics to sell.

I developed Facilitative Questions decades ago to enable any Questioner to facilitate someone’s route to congruent change. With no manipulation or bias, they require a different form of listening, wording, and objectives, thereby avoiding resistance and encouraging trust between sellers, coaches, consultants and their clients.

Take a look at your own questioning strategy to see if they might work for you:

  • How are your questions perceived by your Responders? How do you know? What’s your risk?
  • How do your questions address a unique Responder’s decision criteria?
  • How do your questions bias, restrict, enhance, or ignore possibilities?
  • What criteria to you use to choose the words to formulate questions?
  • To ensure any new skills would work effectively with your successful skills, what would you need to know or consider before adopting additional question formulation skills?

Remember: your innate curiosity or intuition may not be sufficient to facilitate another’s unconscious route to change – or buy – congruently. You can always gather data once the route to change is established and you’re both on the same page. Change the goals of your questions from discovering situations you can provide answers for, to facilitating real core change. Before buyers or clients will work with you, they have to do this for themselves anyway. You might as well do it with them and create a trusting relationship.

Facilitative Questions follow a specific path and wording. I’ve trained sellers to use them for lead generation, to make appointments with the right decision makers (often helped by gatekeepers) and teach prospects to assemble Buying Decision Teams and reach consensus; to help coaches find – and keep – ideal clients, and facilitate their change efficiently. They are great for small and complex sales, for prospecting and lead gen, for team building, for coaching clients seeking change, for change implementations. And for doctors, lawyers, communication professionals, therapists, school administrators, and leaders.

If you’d like to learn how to formulate Facilitative Questions, either get this Learning Accelerator, or contact me to discuss team training or coaching at [email protected]. You can read about the use of Facilitative Questions and the full path of change in Dirty Little Secrets:

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.

Resistance to Guidance: Why Sales, Coaching, and Leadership Practices Falter

Do you know what’s stopping you or your company from making the changes necessary to have more success? Or why prospects aren’t buying something they need? Or why clients aren’t adopting the changes they seek? The problem is resistance. And as change agents we’re inadvertently creating it.

Change requires that a complacent status quo risk its comfort for something unknowable – the probable loss of narrative, expectations, habitual activities and assumptions with no real knowledge of what will take its place. People don’t fear the change; they fear the disruption.

The Status Quo of the System

To understand why our status quo is tenacious we must understand systems. Simply, a system – for the sake of this article families, corporations, or individuals – is:

  1. a collection of policies, beliefs, agreements, goals and history, uniquely developed over time, which
  2. embrace uniform rules that are
  3. recognized and accepted by all and
  4. constitute the foundation of all decisions.

Because of the law of homeostasis (simply, all systems seek stability) any change potentially disrupts the status quo and will be resisted, even if the ‘new’ is more effective; even if the system seeks the change; even if the persuader is skilled at persuasion tactics.

Until or unless a system is able to shift its rules so that the new product, idea or implementation has the ability to fit in and new rules are adopted that reconfigure the status quo from within, change faces an uphill battle. The system is sacrosanct.

To get folks to change their minds or accept a solution and avoid resistance, it’s necessary to first:

  • help the system discover the differences between the new and the old,
  • help the system discover the details of the risk,
  • facilitate an acceptable route to managing the risk,
  • facilitate buy-in from the right people/elements

regardless of the efficacy of the proposed change or the need.

Our Guidance Pushes Against Stable Systems

Entire fields ignore these change management issues to their detriment:

  • the sales model fails 95% of the time because it attempts to push a new solution into the existing status quo, without first facilitating a buyer’s non-need change issues;
  • coaches end up needing 6 months with clients to effect change as they keep trying to push new behaviors into an old system – and then blame clients for not listening’ or believing they have the ‘wrong’ clients;
  • consultants and leaders have a high rate of failed implementations as they attempt to push the new into the old without first collaboratively designing new structures that will accept the change.

Persuasion and manipulation tactics and guidance strategies merely push against a stable system. As outsiders, it’s unlikely we can acquire the historic knowledge and consensus from all relevant insiders, or design the new rules for systemic change, for our ideas or solutions to gain broad acceptance throughout the system.

We can, however, facilitate the system in changing itself. Then the choice of the best solution becomes a consequence of a system that is ready, willing, and able to adopt excellence.

Obviously, having the right solution does not cause change: pitching, suggesting, influencing, or presenting before a system has figured out how to manage change is not only a time waste, but causes resistance and rejection of the proposed solution. So all of our logic, rational, good content, reasoning, or persuasion tactics are useless until the system is ready. Facilitate change first, then offer solutions in the way that the system can use it.

The question is: do you want to place a solution? Or expedite congruent change?

Listening for Systems, Facilitating Change

For the past 30 years I have designed unique models that facilitate change from the inside. Used in sales, and now being used in the coaching industry, my Buying Facilitation® model offers a unique skill set that teaches systems how to change themselves, and includes listening for systems rather than content, and a new way to use questions (Read Dirty Little Secrets ( whether you use my model or develop one of your own, you must begin by facilitating change, not by attempting to first ‘understand need’ or place a solution or idea.

I’m suggesting that you change your accustomed practices: the idea of no longer listening for holes in a client’s logic to offer guidance goes against the grain of sellers, coaches, and consultants. By listening for systems, by focusing on facilitating change and enabling consensus and change management, change agents are more likely to sell, coach, and implement.

I’ve written a new book (What?) to help you hear what others are really saying rather than just what you want to hear. I’ve made it free: Read it, and then let’s start a conversation. Let’s begin to think of managers, sellers, leaders, and coaches as true consultants who can hear what their clients mean. Let’s add a few facilitation skills and be the agents of real change with integrity.

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.

Miscommunication: The Reasons, The Cure, The Prevention

Have you ever been absolutely certain you heard someone say something they later claim they didn’t say? Or inaccurately interpret requests from your spouse or colleagues when you could swear you’re right and they’re wrong? It’s interesting how mutually defined words end up causing such havoc.

Spoken language is a mutable translation system – a best attempt to impart thoughts, feelings, and world view between dialogue partners for the purpose of shared understanding, intimacy, and maintaining relationships. Senders (unconsciously) choose their words as representative of what they wish to share. Most of the time their communication partners understand them. But sometimes Receivers don’t hear a Sender’s message accurately even when they define the words identically causing them to misunderstand or bias what’s been shared, with a potential for a miscommunication. What’s going on?

When researching my new book (What? Did you really say what I think I heard? – offered free) I spent a year reading 52 books to learn why there is a gap between what’s said and what’s heard. I studied brains, bias, collaboration, filters, AI, and the neuroscience aspects of communication, and learned just how fragile our listening process is. Before the research I had naively believed that I accurately heard what others meant to convey most of the time. I was shattered to learn that’s not even possible.

The Reasons

The problem is our brain. As Listeners, we think there is a direct transmission between words spoken and our interpretation. But the reality is far murkier: just as our eyes take in light and our brains interpret captured images, our ears take in sound and our brains interpret meaning. That means we all see and hear the world uniquely, according to our mental models and filters, and are at effect of what our brains allow us to hear, not necessarily what’s said.

During conversations, our brains delete, misconstrue, and misinterpret according to filters – biases, triggers, assumptions, beliefs, habits and mental models – in order to keep us comfortable and maintain our status quo. Accuracy is not their criteria. And we’re left with the residue, assuming our unique interpretation is accurate: not only do we not realize what we think has been said might be inaccurate, we adamantly believe what our brains tell us we’ve heard is accurate. Hard to fix when it’s not obvious there is a problem.

How, then, do we know when we’ve misheard? How do we correct a problem we literally can’t get our minds around? We must go beyond our brain.

The Cure

For us to accurately hear what our communication partners intend to convey we must enter conversations from an ‘observer’ standpoint, allowing us to rise above our filters (I have a thorough discussion on this in Chapter 6 in What?). Since we can’t use the same skills that cause the problem, we must use our physical system to go beyond our brains. Try this technique: During conversations stand up (I get permission to walk around during meetings, saying “Do you mind if I walk around so I can think more creatively?”) or lean back against your chair with your feet up. It physically unhooks you from your physiology that causes automatic responses and takes you, instead, to an unbiased place in your brain. I know this sounds simplistic but try it – it’s an NLP technique that I’ve used in my training programs and coaching sessions for 30 years. It works.

It’s also possible to notice clues in your communication partner that denote ‘misunderstanding’. Visibly, s/he will look confused, or his/her face will go blank or scrunch up. Verbally, you’ll hear a response that is not aligned with your response, or there will be a long silence, or a voice/tempo/volume shift, or a ‘What??’ The cues of miscommunication will depend upon the strength of your relationship, of course. The worst result is that nothing is said and the conversation continues as if there has been understanding.

The Prevention

To have more choices when you need them, start with discovering your tolerance to adding new behavior choice:

  • Where or when are you willing to have a miscommunication? Are there times you need choice to ensure you avoid miscommunicating? Times you don’t mind if there is a miscommunication?
  • How will you know if/when a problem exists early enough to avoid a defective communication?
  • What are you willing to do differently to avoid misunderstanding or misinterpretation? And what happens when you don’t?

The big decision is: are you willing to do something differently to have a higher probability of having an effective communication? Because if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. And just maybe you might need new choices for those times what you’re doing isn’t working. Not to change what you’re doing, but just add a choice when you need one.

Get What? Did you really say what I think I heard? ( It’s free – to make sure you read it, to help you understand how and why people end up mishearing and miscommunicating. I also developed some learning tools for those who wish to recognize their communication choices. Should you wish to train your team to learn to hear clients or collegues more effectively contact Sharon Drew. Enjoy. Let me know how this works for you.

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.

Using Buyer Personas During Pre-Sales Stages

Buyer Personas do a great job targeting marketing and sales campaigns to reach the most probable buying audience. But it’s possible to make them even more efficient.

Here’s a question: Do you want to sell/market? Or have someone buy? The belief is that if you can sell/market appropriately – the right campaign to the right buyer with the right solution at the right time – buyers will buy. If that were true, you’d be closing a helluva lot more than you’re closing. Sure, Buyer Personas make a difference in your close rate. But it could be higher.

Currently, your targeted campaigns blanket probable audiences and find buyers at the exact moment they are considering buying, merely closing the low hanging fruit. It’s possible to enter earlier and facilitate (and influence) the complete buying journey.

Stages in the Buying Decision Path

Sales and marketing address activities surrounding solution placement: solution pitch details, solution features, etc., vendor details, gathering needs. But neither facilitate the entire decision path which constitutes issues beyond choosing a solution. Some might call these ‘Pre-Sales’ events. I call it the Buying Decision Path, along which sales is merely one of the entry points needed to close a sale.

Briefly, here are the stages buyers go through prior to purchasing a solution (Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell and what you can do about it fully details each stage

1. Idea stage.

2. Brainstorming stage. Idea discussed with colleagues.

3. Initial discussion stage. Colleagues discuss the problem, posit who to include on Buying Decision Team, consider possible fixes and fallout. Action groups formed. Research begins. New Team members invited.

4. Contemplation stage. Group discusses:
a. how to fix the problem with known resources,
b. whether to create a workaround using internal fixes or seek an external solution, and acceptable type/amount of fallout from each,
c. people who would need to buy-in.

5. Organization stage.

6. Change management stage. Group determines:
a. if more research is necessary (and who will do it),
b. if all appropriate people are involved (and who to invite),
c. a review of all elements of the problem and solution,
d. the level of disruption and change management as per type of solution chosen,
e. the pros/cons/possibilities of external solution vs current vendor vs workaround.

7. Coordination stage. Review needs, ideas, issues of any new members invited aboard and how they affect choices and goals; incorporate change considerations for each solution; delineate everyone’s thoughts re goals and change capacity; appropriate research responsibilities.

8. Research stage. Specific research for each possible solution; seek answers to how fallout or change would be managed with each solution.

9. Consensus stage. Buying Decision Team members meet to share research and determine the type of solution, fallout, possibilities, problems, considerations in re management, policies, job descriptions, HR issues, etc. General decisions made. Buy-in and consensus necessary.

10. Action stage. Responsibilities apportioned to manage specifics of Stage 9. Owners of tasks do thorough research and make calls to several vendors for interviews and data gathering.

11. Second brainstorming stage. Discussion on results of data gathering including fallout/ benefits of each. Favored vendors pitched by Team members.

12. Choice stage. New solution agreed on. Change management issues delineated and leadership initiatives prepared to avoid disruption. Vendor contacted.

13. Implementation stage.

Buyers have to manage these stages (most of which are not solution- or problem-specific) with you or without you. Without being directly involved with behind-the-scenes politics or processes you’re left waiting, pushing product data, and hoping to be there they’re ready. And knowing the details of your Buyer Persona is insufficient.

Do you want to sell/market? Or have someone buy? Right now your efforts to sell and market are bringing in no more than 5% close rate (net). To become the vendor who truly helps buyers buy, to get an early leg-up on the competition and become part of the Buying Decision Team during the Pre-Sales process, sales (entering at stage 1) and marketing (entering at stage 3) can add another layer of skills, tools, goals, and touch points.

Buying Facilitation® is a Pre-Sales Management model that I’ve developed and taught for 30 years. It employs a specific quided approach to lead buyers through their internal politics and change processes, with profoundly different results from using sales and marketing alone. It uses neither sales nor marketing thinking: it employs a new form of question, a different type of listening, and a systems-thinking role consistent with true consulting. And then you can sell or market earlier and faster, to the right people.

I can teach your sales team how to become facilitators, or show your marketing team ways to design the right questions to help buyers traverse each stage of their unique buying journey. See more articles on Or call me: Sharon Drew 512 457 0246.

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.

Learn how to hear buyers effectively with Sharon Drew’s new book What? offered free, digitally at