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The Biggest Communication Problem Is That We Listen To Reply, Not To Understand

The Biggest Communication Problem Is That We Listen To Reply, Not To Understand

George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Picture this: someone is speaking to you, expressing their thoughts carefully for you to understand. You wait for the breaks in the conversation, when you think they’ve finished talking, and then you interrupt with your own piece of information or repeat what was just said. “Oh, I know just how you feel,” you say, or “I had the same thing happen to me. Let me tell you about it!”

You fail to listen. You create your own ideas. You miss the message and the opportunity to understand. It’s about your agenda, not theirs. Have you ever experienced this?

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Often, you think you’ve understood what was said, but the reality is that you spent the whole time formulating a reply and forgot to actually listen. Arguably, listening is the most difficult skill in communication, and we’re getting worse at it.

What We Hear Vs. What We Understand

There is a lag time between hearing and understanding. This lag time varies from one individual to another. The lag time can be a few seconds to up to a minute, and this is where the trouble begins. It’s during this lag time that we drift off and start listening to ourselves and not to the person speaking to us. This is when we lose concentration and comprehension.

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What causes this lag time? It could be our emotional state. It also could be our physical state. However, the most likely offenders are our own thoughts and judgments. One example is confirmation bias, our habit of picking out facets of a conversation that reinforce our values, perceptions and pre-existing beliefs.

The gap between what is said and what we hear is also linked to how slow or fast a person speaks. The average person speaks 175 to 200 words per minute, but most people are capable of listening to and processing 600 to 1,000 words per minute. Because of this, our brain is not always fully focused on what someone is saying and goes off in different directions. This prevents us from understanding what is being said.

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Another phenomenon is called competitive listening. This is when we have a negative reaction to what is being said because we don’t agree with the other person. We immediately stop listening and the conversation is over.

Allow Yourself to Understand

Let’s face it, we’re not going to agree with everything everybody says. That is part of life, and we need to accept it. Instead of falling into traps like confirmation bias and competitive listening, let’s try to concentrate on understanding by becoming a little more empathetic when we listen. Here are some suggestions.

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  1. Open your mind to what is being said. Don’t judge, just listen. If you have a problem focusing, repeat what is being said in your mind.
  2. Forget the details and listen for the big picture. It’s important to get the overall point of the conversation first. Statements can be easily misunderstood, especially when they differ from your own opinions and cause you to listen competitively.
  3. Don’t interrupt until the other person has finished speaking. You can always ask the speaker to repeat himself or herself, but do it in between sentences.
  4. Don’t jump to conclusions. Let the speaker articulate his or her point of view completely. This will give you time to think it through before formulating a response.

Remember, it’s perfectly OK to disagree with someone, but you need to first understand their message. Ask yourself why their message may be true and what circumstances would make it true. Asking this will put you “in their shoes,” so to speak, and will make it more challenging to argue with them.

In summary, most of us have never been taught to listen, so it’s really not our fault. Effective listening is skill-based and must be learned and practiced. You must approach listening with a positive attitude and the intent to understand the other person completely. This paradigm is completely different from the usual paradigm. It gets you within the other person’s reality. You put yourself in it so that you can see things the way the other person sees them and understand the way they feel. Your reply will then come from a basis of complete understanding.

Featured photo credit: Tord Sollie via unsplash.com

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Anthony Pica

Freelance Writer

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Last Updated on August 6, 2020

6 Reasons Why You Should Think Before You Speak

6 Reasons Why You Should Think Before You Speak

We’ve all done it. That moment when a series of words slithers from your mouth and the instant regret manifests through blushing and profuse apologies. If you could just think before you speak! It doesn’t have to be like this, and with a bit of practice, it’s actually quite easy to prevent.

“Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.” – Napolean Hill

Are we speaking the same language?

My mum recently left me a note thanking me for looking after her dog. She’d signed it with “LOL.” In my world, this means “laugh out loud,” and in her world it means “lots of love.” My kids tell me things are “sick” when they’re good, and ”manck” when they’re bad (when I say “bad,” I don’t mean good!). It’s amazing that we manage to communicate at all.

When speaking, we tend to color our language with words and phrases that have become personal to us, things we’ve picked up from our friends, families and even memes from the internet. These colloquialisms become normal, and we expect the listener (or reader) to understand “what we mean.” If you really want the listener to understand your meaning, try to use words and phrases that they might use.

Am I being lazy?

When you’ve been in a relationship for a while, a strange metamorphosis takes place. People tend to become lazier in the way that they communicate with each other, with less thought for the feelings of their partner. There’s no malice intended; we just reach a “comfort zone” and know that our partners “know what we mean.”

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Here’s an exchange from Psychology Today to demonstrate what I mean:

Early in the relationship:

“Honey, I don’t want you to take this wrong, but I’m noticing that your hair is getting a little thin on top. I know guys are sensitive about losing their hair, but I don’t want someone else to embarrass you without your expecting it.”

When the relationship is established:

“Did you know that you’re losing a lot of hair on the back of your head? You’re combing it funny and it doesn’t help. Wear a baseball cap or something if you feel weird about it. Lots of guys get thin on top. It’s no big deal.”

It’s pretty clear which of these statements is more empathetic and more likely to be received well. Recognizing when we do this can be tricky, but with a little practice it becomes easy.

Have I actually got anything to say?

When I was a kid, my gran used to say to me that if I didn’t have anything good to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all. My gran couldn’t stand gossip, so this makes total sense, but you can take this statement a little further and modify it: “If you don’t have anything to say, then don’t say anything at all.”

A lot of the time, people speak to fill “uncomfortable silences,” or because they believe that saying something, anything, is better than staying quiet. It can even be a cause of anxiety for some people.

When somebody else is speaking, listen. Don’t wait to speak. Listen. Actually hear what that person is saying, think about it, and respond if necessary.

Am I painting an accurate picture?

One of the most common forms of miscommunication is the lack of a “referential index,” a type of generalization that fails to refer to specific nouns. As an example, look at these two simple phrases: “Can you pass me that?” and “Pass me that thing over there!”. How often have you said something similar?

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How is the listener supposed to know what you mean? The person that you’re talking to will start to fill in the gaps with something that may very well be completely different to what you mean. You’re thinking “pass me the salt,” but you get passed the pepper. This can be infuriating for the listener, and more importantly, can create a lack of understanding and ultimately produce conflict.

Before you speak, try to label people, places and objects in a way that it is easy for any listeners to understand.

What words am I using?

It’s well known that our use of nouns and verbs (or lack of them) gives an insight into where we grew up, our education, our thoughts and our feelings.

Less well known is that the use of pronouns offers a critical insight into how we emotionally code our sentences. James Pennebaker’s research in the 1990’s concluded that function words are important keys to someone’s psychological state and reveal much more than content words do.

Starting a sentence with “I think…” demonstrates self-focus rather than empathy with the speaker, whereas asking the speaker to elaborate or quantify what they’re saying clearly shows that you’re listening and have respect even if you disagree.

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Is the map really the territory?

Before speaking, we sometimes construct a scenario that makes us act in a way that isn’t necessarily reflective of the actual situation.

A while ago, John promised to help me out in a big way with a project that I was working on. After an initial meeting and some big promises, we put together a plan and set off on its execution. A week or so went by, and I tried to get a hold of John to see how things were going. After voice mails and emails with no reply and general silence, I tried again a week later and still got no response.

I was frustrated and started to get more than a bit vexed. The project obviously meant more to me than it did to him, and I started to construct all manner of crazy scenarios. I finally got through to John and immediately started a mild rant about making promises you can’t keep. He stopped me in my tracks with the news that his brother had died. If I’d have just thought before I spoke…

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