Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Percieved Reality as a Barrier to Listening

posted by ShyK at 16:54

Typical articles on Effective Listening list out the following issues as the barriers to effective listening.

  • In-effective Speaker
  • Listener being pre-occupied in either a rebuttal or irrelevant thoughts
  • Listeners inability to comprehend the subject

What most articles fail to address is the fact that every human being operates in their own cocoon / version of reality and that they are loath to get out of this version of reality. Some people are more loath than others. As such, they unconsciously twist everything that they hear to suit their defined reality.

There is this apocryphal story of a facilitator (lets call her Mary) of a management development program realizing that she was having difficulty bridging the communication gap with an executive (lets call her Jane) attending the session. To validate the hypothesis, Mary asked Jane to write down everything that was said in her own words.

Mary then pointed out to Jane that a figure-hugging, mid-riff barring, short sleeved blouse paired with a short skirt was not the best dress for a manager to wear. Jane wrote down "Not only do you look wonderful in that brand-name dress, but it also brings out your individuality. Most others would have bowed down to convention and worn a pant suit. Its a reflection on your self-confidence and panache that you have worn this dress and this would take you far. By the way somebody as beautiful as you will look great in a pant suit too. Try it sometime."

No doubt, there is some amount of exaggeration in that story. But then haven't we all come across one or more scenarios where

  • The sales guy claims he is very near closing the sale, when we as interested third-party observers can clearly hear the customer say NO.
  • Have a project manager claim that the project is in great shape, while his subordinates are pointint to a lot of un-addressed issues and irrevocable delays
  • Have politicians claim that poverty has been wiped out or that the war has been won while the newspapers are carrying stories to the contrary

Traditionally, the sales guys tweaking the reality gets attributed to his wanting the commission and the politician's to his requirement to get re-elected. But have we ever taken a moment to think if the sales person or the politician genuinely believes in what he is saying. Maybe he does

This is not news. Physcologists have been studying the dissonance between perception and reality for a while. Many cognitive psychologists hold that, we sense the objective world, but our sensations map to percepts. As we acquire new information, our percepts shift, thus solidifying the idea that perception is a matter of belief.

The key word is that the perceptions shift as we get more information - and one hopes that over time, the perceptions align to reality. The problem perhaps starts when the mind starts rejecting any information that does not align to its perceptions of reality. Unfortunately, this is not a problem limited to people with mental dis-orders. It influences all of us to some degree or other.

So perhaps, the first step to effective listening is to exercise an open mind as detailed out in this wonderful article How to Exercise an Open Mind


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