What is Said and What is Heard?
The Communication Process
Listening is the most fundamental component of interpersonal communication skills. Listening is not something that just happens (that is hearing), listening is an active process in which a conscious decision is made to listen to and understand the messages of the speaker. Listeners should remain neutral and non-judgmental, this means trying not to take sides or form opinions, especially early in the conversation.
Listening is also about patience – pauses and short periods of silence should be accepted. Listeners should not be tempted to jump in with questions or comments every time there are a few seconds of silence. Active listening involves giving the other person time to explore their thoughts and feelings, they should, therefore, be given adequate time for that.
Active listening not only means focusing fully on the speaker but also actively showing verbal and non-verbal signs of listening. Generally speakers want listeners to demonstrate ‘active listening’ by responding appropriately to what they are saying. Appropriate responses to listening can be both verbal and non-verbal.
However, often what the listener is saying isn’t what we hear. Messages go through a complicated system of filters and outside influences.
As active listeners, we need to understand these possible influences, and to account for them.
The Ladder of Inference
One common and dangerous trap is what’s known as the ladder of inference: a common mental pathway of increasing abstraction that often leads to assumptions and misguided beliefs.
For example, let’s say that you are giving a presentation to your company’s senior management. One manager (we’ll call him John) is checking his phone, answering messages, and clearly disengaged from your work. At the end of your comprehensive presentation, his only comment is to ask you for more detailed information, in a report sent via e-mail.
You know that if you do prepare that information, it’s unlikely that John will read it. Plus, all the details are in your presentation. As you start brooding over this, you remind yourself that John has never shown any respect for you and that he did not want to hire you for this team. Clearly, John doesn’t know what he is doing and you’ve also decided you are not going to create a special report for him; you’ll just send him a summary of your presentation, because he won’t read it anyway.
In those few seconds before you take your seat, you have climbed all the way up the ladder! You did start out with observable data (John is at the presentation), and then added his behaviour (distracted by his phone and answering messages). But then you added some meaning of your own: that John doesn’t respect you and didn’t want to hire you. Finally, you label John as annoying.
This process tends to take place very quickly, and most people aren’t even aware that they climb the rungs of this ladder in their head. The only visible parts for anyone else are the observable events at the bottom of the ladder and anything that you demonstrate at the top, where you’ve made your decision about what to do. The discussion going on inside your mind (which you probably can’t or won’t verbalise) and your journey up the rungs of the ladder, are not visible to anyone else.
We can climb these ladders of inference very easily. The more I believe that John does not support me, the more likely it is that I am going to notice his unsupportive behavior in the future. This becomes a reflexive loop, where my beliefs will influence the data I am going to select the next time I see John.
There is naturally also a reflexive loop here for John, where he will react to my antagonism. He is quite likely working on some rungs on his own ladder, and before long, we could find it impossible to work together.
So how do we try to step off the ladder? To start, consider that what you witnessed in the meeting was John dealing with something else. Perhaps he was bored or distracted, or perhaps he was checking his phone because of an emergency he had to deal with. Maybe he was interested in your presentation, but the fact that you didn’t print a copy off for everyone led to his request for something that he could look back on and refer to.
As a professional, it might have been best for you to find out if there really is a problem that you and John need to work out. What would happen if you asked him about the meeting? What if you asked him for some feedback on your work and the efforts that you are putting in to your projects? Would you hear his answer?
Using Your Own Experiences as a Resource
You can learn a great deal by increasing your awareness and giving some thought to situations where you are on both ends of the communication spectrum (as a communicator and as a listener). Try writing out an exchange with a colleague, a troubling event, or even the scenario with John above. Then, set it aside for a week before you look at it. This will give you the time and distance needed to review it clearly.