There’s been an age-old argument in the communication field: who’s at fault if a misunderstanding occurs – the Speaker communicating badly, or the Listener misunderstanding? Let’s look at some facts:
1. Speaking is an act of translating what’s going on internally into communication that enables others to understand an intent – choosing the most appropriate words for that particular listener in that particular situation. But the act of choosing is unconscious and may not render a full or accurate representation of what is meant.
2. Listeners translate what they hear through a series of unconscious filters (biases, assumptions, triggers, habits, imperfect memory) formed over their lives by their:
- world view,
- similar situations,
- historic exchanges with the same speaker,
- biases on entering the conversation (like sellers listening exclusively for need).
What a listener hears is fraught with so much unconscious filtering that their ability to hear accurately what’s meant is untrustworthy, except, possibly, when speaking with someone known over time.
3. According to David Bellos in his excellent book Is That a Fish In Your Ear?, no sentence contains all of the information we need to translate it. As listeners, are we translating accurately? What parts of what we hear is biased?
Since communication involves a bewildering set of conscious and unconscious choices, accuracy becomes dependent upon each communication partner mitigating bias and disengaging from assumptions; the odds of communication partners accurately understanding the full extent of intended meaning in conversation is unlikely. It’s quite a complicated mess of factors.
My new book What? Did you really say what I think I heard? focuses on listening: how we mishear, misunderstand, and otherwise misinterpret, where and how the gap between what’s said and what’s heard occurs and how to avoid misunderstanding. [My next book might be titled Seriously? Did you really hear what you think I said? that focuses on speakers]. While researching and writing the book I realized that the responsibility for effective communication is heavily weighted in the court of the listener: if listeners don’t have skills to catch or prevent their biases or unhook from all subjective filters, the speaker’s words and intent are moot: they may be misconstrued regardless of their accuracy. And yes, sometimes speakers mis-speak. But when a listener hears precisely what is being conveyed and respond accordingly, a speaker can hear any problems and correct them.
So the answer is: the responsibility for an effective communication lie with the listener.
For those wishing to recognize their own levels of misunderstanding and bias in their listening process during conversations, I’ve developed an Assessment Tool. And for those wishing to have the skills to hear without misunderstanding or bias, I’ve developed a Study Guide. Make sure you read my new book What? Did you really say what I think I heard? available digitally, and contact me to help you and your team implement the skills. firstname.lastname@example.org