What Are You Listening For? The Battle Between Hearing v Listening

Aug 5, 2014 9:00:00 AM Mirais Holden Perception, Communicating

heard_versus_listeningAsk yourself this question: Do you listen with your ears?

Most people would respond “Yes, of course I listen with my ears.”

Hearing v. Listening:

I’m going to claim that while there is certainly a biological process called hearing that happens with our ears, listening is something very different. I may hear what you say with my ears, but what I actually  listen is a product of my own interpretations.


So how do we interpret what we hear? One of the basic claims in the field of Ontological Design is that each of us listens through a set of filters – our belief systems, our mood in the moment, our education, our gender, our culture, the stories and narratives that we have made up, etc. Every person has a different set of filters, which leads each of us to listen differently.

This means that people say what they say, and I listen what I listen.

 For Example:

Janice might say to her friend Nancy: “Nancy, please stop calling me so late in the evening. I go to bed at 8:00pm, and I don’t want to be called after 7:45pm.” And Nancy might think: “That’s no problem. I can do that. I’m glad Nancy cares about me enough to tell me this instead of continuing to be annoyed with me.”

But if Janice said the exact same thing to me, perhaps I might think: “Wow! That Janice is so rude! If she’s really my friend, then she should be happy whenever I call. Maybe Janice really isn’t my friend after all.”

What Janice said to both Nancy and me was exactly the same, and Nancy and I both heard the same words through the biological process involving our ears, but my listening was different than Nancy’s listening.

So it seems like Janice just said what she said. The critical difference in meaning resulted from the fact that Nancy and I each listened what we listened. If this is the case, then perhaps the most important part of communication isn’t the speaking at all, but rather the listening.

Observing Ourselves:

With that in mind, how can we become better observers of the way we listen in the world? For starters, we can observe that sometimes we are listening for particular things, and when we are listening for something in particular, we often find it!

Listening for Invalidation or Rejection

Many of us listen for evidence that we are being invalidated or rejected in some way.

When Janice said what she said, I listened that Janice did not truly want to be my friend. I listened for invalidation and rejection, and so that’s exactly what I heard! Notice that Nancy heard something different – likely because she was not listening for invalidation or rejection.

Ask yourself: How am I listening defensively in my relationships? How am I listening for invalidation or rejection? Is this directing my relationships in a way that works for me?

Listening For What I Already Know

Many of us listen for information that we already know, instead of listening for something new for us to learn.

How many of you have had the experience of sitting in a classroom, a meeting a work, or a conversation with someone and have suddenly found yourself bored, thinking “I already know this” or “Tell me something I don’t know”?

When we listen for what we already know, we are blind to the possibilities of learning something new, and when something new does show up, we are likely to miss it completely because that’s not what we’re listening for.

Ask yourself: How has listening for what I already know gotten in my way – In my career? My education? My relationships with the people I love?

Listening to Make Wrong

Many of us listen for opportunities to make the other person wrong.

How many of you have had the experience of listening to a person that you love speak, but you are barely listening because you are busy talking to yourself in your own head, forming your rebuttal and finding the best argument to make sure you are right?

The only problem with wanting to be right is that when I have to be right all the time, that means I have to make someone else wrong, and often that person is someone I love.

Ask yourself: How has listening to make others wrong gotten in my way in my relationships?



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