Join Brenda Bailey-Hughes for an in-depth discussion in this video Getting distracted by internal noise, part of Effective Listening.
- There's a lot going on in our heads when we try to listen attentively. Sometimes the hard drive is just filled up, or sometimes we're too tired to follow along. As Tatiana and I coach professionals to be effective communicators, we have found that when it comes to listening challenges, five specific ones make the top of the list. Mental filters, multitasking, distraction by delivery, information overload, and inappropriate response. We'll begin with mental filters because this is the most pervasive problem to good listening.
Think for a moment of the oil filter in your car or the furnace filter in your home. These filters keep the bad stuff from getting into your engine or your heating system, but when a filter gets a little dirty, it actually starts to hurt more than it helps. Similarly, our brains have mental filters. These filters automatically sift through the vast amounts of information we're bombarded with at any given moment, and it attempts to sort, organize, prioritize, and make sense of it all.
When I'm here in the recording studio, my brain knows to filter out automobile sounds from outside or people talking in the hallway, even someone on the set rustling papers. My mental filter knows to allow in the voice of my director saying, stop, let's try that again. If I were standing in the middle of a busy street, my mental filter would know that those automobile noises suddenly are a top priority and deserve my attention.
When Tatiana says, hey, you want to grab lunch, my filter kicks in and recognizes that she is speaking metaphorically. She doesn't want me to literally grab my food. So my filters can be useful in sorting and understanding the world around me. Yet, as with the filters on our appliances and our vehicles, if my filter isn't clean, I start to experience some problems. Like a coffee filter, water goes in, but by the time it filters through the grinds, voila, we have coffee, a very different substance.
Sometimes when my filter is filled up with coffee grinds you may say water, but I may hear coffee, and now you and I are experiencing a communication breakdown. These filters develop over time, as we gain certain educational and professional expertise. We sometimes start to look at all the world through the lenses of our own experiences. An example of this was when a friend's father was transported to the hospital by ambulance when he had a heart issue.
After being in the hospital for a day or two, the heart seemed to be stable, but he continued to complain about pain in his foot. The cardiologist assumed that the heart wasn't pumping well enough to provide circulation to the foot. Another specialist thought that dad's diabetes was acting up and causing pain in the foot, and yet another doctor had another idea, unique to his area of expertise. Finally a nurse asked, sir, have you hit your foot on anything recently? And sure enough, her question reminded the man that the door of the ambulance had bumped his foot when he was brought to the hospital days ago.
Sure enough, a simple x-ray showed a fracture to the foot, caused by the door. The filters of each of these brilliant doctors made it easy for them to look for what they expected to see, what they normally see. Here's another example. Take a quick look at these triangles and read aloud the words in the middle triangle. Ready? Go. Did you say, Snake in the grass? If so, read it again.
Read it carefully. It actually says, Snake in the the grass, but because we've heard the first expression, we tend to see what we expect to see. Likewise when listening, we tend to hear what we expect to hear, whether or not that's what the speaker had to say. Our mental filters need a good cleaning if we react to certain words, phrases, or topics, because they are hot buttons for us emotionally. Our cherished notions, our strong convictions, and our assumptions about reality can end up clouding our ability to listen openly and without preconceived bias.
My vegan and carnivore friends both feel challenged when the other begins to advocate for the health and ethics of their own eating preferences. I have witnessed a phenomenon known as disconfirmation bias happening right in front of my eyes when these two get together. Vince the vegan will make a fairly good argument, supported by some specific data, and Carrie the carnivore starts bashing the research used to collect the data, but then she'll cite some lame resource herself to support her idea, and this disconfirmation bias goes both ways.
They spend more time and energy debunking evidence that they disagree with, rather than critiquing or evaluating the evidence they do agree with. I've heard them both cite some pretty weak research to support their claims about their lifestyles and their choices, yet they only criticize that which doesn't align with their own thinking. They really never listen or learn from one another because they mentally begin to filter out anything contrary to what they want to hear.
So whether filters are caused by previous experiences or deep held beliefs, we need to be able to set aside our assumptions long enough to listen and listen to understand. If you catch yourself mentally or actually finishing someone's sentences, or if you find yourself crafting your refutation in your mind as you listen, recognize these red flags for what they are, your mental filter's in desperate need of a good cleaning.
- Recalling details
- Avoiding distractions and the feeling of being overwhelmed
- Clarifying your role
- Using attentive nonverbal cues
- Paraphrasing what was said
- Matching emotions and mirroring