Long ago1 but still in this galaxy and not very far away at all, I read a humorous article in the Reader’s Digest.2 As our brains are sometimes wont to do, it stuck this article in the “permanent, never forget” section, along with the theme from Gilligan’s Island and the lyrics to all the Beatles songs. In the article, the author had occasional hearing issues which caused him to sometimes interject odd things (“And there’s no ketchup in Australia!”) into a conversation about John Donne’s poetry.
Many of us have a completely different kind of hearing problem. For example, we had a speaker at our church a few month ago. FB lit up afterwards3 with things like:
“I can’t believe he told us to X!!!”
“They must have talked to him between services, he didn’t say that in our service.”
Except that no one talked to him between services, because he never said X in any service. What was heard was not what was said, because what was said was interpreted as being X, when it was really Y. This isn’t a physical hearing problem, this is a faulty cognition problem. It’s filtering what we hear through our world view before we really hear it, which can turn what we “hear” into something very different than what was said.
My recent favorite instance of this was related to reading, not hearing, but reading is nothing more than “hearing” in our heads the words on the page, so it’s related. This conversation took place recently on a TV show I was watching:
“You’ve read Lord of the Rings?”
“Four times. It is all about power, after all.”
“Really? I always thought it was about friendship.”
Both of those characters interpreted LOTR through their own personal filter and what was important to them. They read the same book and “heard” very different things.
I often encounter this at work. After a meeting, it’s rare that I don’t hear three or four versions of what was said in the meeting, to the point that I have on occasion threatened to record every meeting I’m in.4 This is especially disruptive, because “decisions” were made in the meeting, except there are several versions of what the decisions actually were, which means we occasionally5 have to meet again to resolve the various interpretations of the earlier decisions.
Fortunately, we have a haven at home that is free from this problem. Husbands and wives are always listening intentently to each other without any filter interference at all and never mind, I can’t even finish this sentence without falling down in laughter. Tens of thousands of people have made billions writing approximately ninety-five million books to explain why this is such a big problem in marriages.
This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that while all of us have this problem, none of us think we do. Just like 80% of people believe they’re above-average drivers, almost everyone thinks they’re a good listener. Regardless of how well or poorly we do it now, how do we become better listeners?
We can start with actually listening. In the 21st century, listening is a contact sport – the words others are saying have to make their way through our texts and Instagram posts and Snapchats and FB messages and email notifications and whatever new app we install tomorrow that lets us stay “connected” in our ever-more isolated culture. Turn your phone over so you don’t see it. Turn off notifications. Train yourself to ignore the people that aren’t in front of you so you can listen better to the person that is in front of you.
We can listen to understand rather than to interject. For most of us, after about three sentences from the person we’re listening to, we’re devoting all our brain power to our response and we have no idea what they said in their next four sentences. Our so-called response is thus only covering half or less of what they said, and that probably inaccurately, because we we got a text during those first three sentences. When you find yourself doing that, stop and re-focus on what’s being said. You’ll have plenty of time to respond when they’re finished.
We can keep listening. We have a tendency to check out when someone says something we disagree with. Although this can be related to the understanding point above, it can also be worse. We aren’t formulating a response, we just completely stop listening to what’s being said. There is value to continuing to listen, though — not only does it help us understand the other person better, it can help sharpen our own thoughts and viewpoint as we digest what was said.
We can filter the filters. We’re Democrats, we’re Republicans, we’re Muslims, we’re atheists, we’re male, we’re female, we’re rich, we’re poor, we’re white, we’re black, we’re a lovely shade of chartreuse, we’re Tar Heels, we’re Blue Devils, we’re Team Jacob, we’re Team Edward. We all have biases, filters, outlooks that are a product of our upbringing. There’s nothing wrong with that, until it keeps us from hearing others well.
(If you’ve spent the last minute trying to figure out why I left out X above, or why I included Y, you have a filtering problem.)
If I put a red filter on the front of my camera lens, suddenly everything looks red. That’s not a problem if I want everything to look red, but it’s a big problem if I don’t know it’s there and I think everyting really is red. We need to not only be aware of our filters as we listen, we need to actively try to disengage them, at least until later, after we have time to process all of what was said.
All of this has been said a thousand times before. You’ve probably heard it at least a hundred times. You just haven’t listened. At least, that’s what I was thinking while you were talking.