Sometimes we hear whatever

We are used to trusting our observations and memories. In reality, our observations are subjective and our memory has holes in it. When we think back on a past event, our memory can only recall crumbs, from which we form a story in our head that feels pleasant or that makes sense.

The most confusing thing is that we cannot reach reality in a neutral and objective way even when it’s happening. For example, when we are listening to someone else, we don’t always hear what they say. Instead, we hear what we assume, hope or fear they’ll say. Or we interpret the message hiding behind the words and get stuck in it.

Financial security vs. you waste money

In his book Nonviolent Communication, Marshall B. Rosenberg tells a story about mediating between husband and wife. The husband is worried about the family’s financial security and so wouldn’t want to give his wife a chequebook to use.

During the mediation, Marshall asks: “Are you afraid, since you’d like your family to have financial security?” The husband admits that that’s true. After that, Marshall asks the wife to repeat what she heard, and the wife says, “If I happened to overdraw the account a few times, that doesn’t mean that I do it constantly.” Instead of the husband’s emotions and needs, the wife hears a reproach that she feels she needs to defend herself against.

During the conversation, the wife also exaggerates (“It seems he doesn’t want me to use any money.”) and makes assumptions about her husband’s thoughts (“He thinks that I use too much money.”) This is very understandable, because we are not used to expressing, and so to hearing other people’s, feelings and needs. Instead, we are used to critiquing, interpreting and judging – and that’s why we are sensitive to hearing critique, interpretation and judgment in other people’s words.

Do I hear or do I dash?

Even if the other person presented the issue as neutrally and constructively as possible, the conversation might still go directly to our feelings. We feel ourselves and our identity to be threatened, we want to defend ourselves and feel that the situation is unjust. In these moments, we simply cannot hear and especially repeat what the other person is saying.

The more conscious we are about our own state, the faster we catch ourselves when we cannot listen to someone else. If we notice that we are upset and our thoughts are dashing around, it’s a good idea to take a time-out and calm down. Afterwards, we have the opportunity to try to not add interpretations to the other person’s story and to focus on hearing only what they’re saying.

Ask to be listened to if you’re not hearing

We cannot understand until we can hear what is being said. When we finally manage to repeat and summarise the other person’s story in a neutral way, we have a chance to advance the conversation constructively. However, true listening generally requires that we don’t feel threatened during the conversation.

If you notice that you cannot listen neutrally, it can be good to put that into words:

  • ”This topic feels threatening to me, and I feel the need to defend myself.”
  • ”I notice that I cannot receive this message.”
  • ”It’s hard for me to listen to you right now.”

In these situations, the other person can jump into the listening role. When the other person gets to be heard, it can help them listen to the original message more neutrally. If neither person is able to listen, it’s time for a break and reorganising your thoughts.

This can also be the moment when you should think about outside help to improve the situation. Sometimes a third party can help a lot in getting everyone to listen, to hear and to summarise what they heard. This builds a connection, and the conversation can move on.

Learn to pay attention to what you hear and how you put what you heard into words. It improves the quality of the conversation and speeds up conflict resolution considerably.

TL;DR: We don’t always hear objectively and neutrally.

  • We are sensitive to hearing critique and judgment in other people’s words, and so easily go on the defensive.
    • At that point, we no longer hear neutrally what the other person is saying – just what we assume they’re saying.
  • If you feel threatened, it’s impossible to hear and especially to repeat what the other person is saying.
  • If you notice that you’re upset, take a time-out and calm down.
  • If you cannot listen neutrally to the other person, ask them to take the listening role.
    • If neither of you can listen, it’s time for a break in the conversation and for reorganising your thoughts.
  • Learn to pay attention to what you hear and how you put it into words. It improves the quality of the conversation and speeds up conflict resolution.

More on the topic

Read more about interpretation on the blog:

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