”Yes, I am. I can repeat exactly what you said, word for word…”
We often confuse hearing with listening. As a leader, one of our primary roles is to create an environment where people feel motivated to achieve business results. There is something about human nature that, in order to feel motivated, we need to feel affirmed and understood. When we do not feel what we are saying is truly understood, we can become frustrated and discouraged.
Communication occurs at three levels: Factual; meaning; importance.
Factual - At its most basic level, we transfer facts and figures, or words and data, from one party to another. Objective facts are the most reliable form of communication, and yet even they can have distortions and unintended biases. Optical illusions are a classic example of how what we see with our eyes, is not necessarily what we see when interpreted by our brain. Our brain can’t help trying to find meaning even at the data layer. When we see a few lines drawn in a particular shape our brain may interpret that as a letter or a number, when in fact it’s just some unrelated lines. When we piece together some words in a sentence, we add additional meaning, based on previous experiences we have had, which may differ from those of the person saying those words. To improve our communication, it does help to first try to establish the facts of the communication, before ascribing any meaning to it. Written communication is very good for creating clarity on the factual aspects of the communication.
Meaning – Once we have understood what the facts of the matter are, we try to determine what that means. This is where things get tricky, as my version of the world is not necessarily the same as yours. What happens in a dysfunctional conversation is the receiving party is analysing what the communication means to them, instead of first understanding what the transmitting party is intending to convey. Good listening delves into what the other person is saying, rather than making judgements on what you are hearing.
Belief – At the deepest level of communication we explore how the person feels about the situation. Once they have subjectively interpreted the meaning of the objective facts, how important is it to them? This delves into their core belief system. We all build up our view of what we think is important and true in life. Truths about ourselves, truths about others and truths about how the world works. We like to think our truths - our beliefs - are shaped by the facts around us, but we all have distortions and biases, based on our life experiences that makes our belief system unique. This level of communication is the most complex as to challenge someone’s belief system is to get to the very heart of someone’s core being. Changing a belief is incredibly hard, as it involves re-programming our brains into how we have thought about all past experiences as well as creating a new filter on how we will judge all experiences in future.
Given how complex communicating is, and how open it is to biases, misunderstandings and deliberate distortions , is it any wonder that unless you are giving someone your absolute, undivided attention and fully engaged in understanding what they are saying, they will be crying out “you are not listening to me”.