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?

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.

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.

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.

  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.


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