Right or Left? I Wasn’t Listening

Have you ever played the game “Whisper?” You may know the same game as “Telephone” or “Pass it On.” The game begins with a set of instructions that the first person passes on the next person by whispering it to them without others hearing those instructions.

The purpose of this game is to see if the instructions will remain intact by the time the final person receives the whispered communication. Much more often than not the instructions have changed. Psychologists and science have studied this phenomenon. They have discovered that we have biases which have us reinterpret information that we receive to form to our preferences.

Here is an example. I play tennis. What is the picture you formed in your head: that I play casually or I play like a pro? Although you do not know my level of play you most likely formed an impression based on your biases.

Communication holds the same challenge to forming biases instead of listening to the actual information being imparted.

Returning to the “Whisper” game-let’s say the instruction is: turn left at the apple orchard which is on your right. By the time this simple instruction is whispered to twenty people, it three directions are changed. The first left can become continue straight or take a right, at the orchard becomes after the orchard and the right is omitted or turned to left. Even this simple instruction can change, dramatically. This is called bias reformation.

This also plays out in memories of events and people. John Dean, one of President Nixon’s confidantes, expressed great confidence in his memory of conversations he had with the President. It turns out he was exaggerating those memories when the actual recording was played or transcript was read. Even multiple witnesses to an incident will remember it differently after only twenty minutes have passed from the incident.

What I have learned is that predispositions are already at work when listening. This is why a whispered set of instructions can change so quickly when passed from one person to another.

When communication matters, active listening matters. Our normal casual conversational style will not work. It will be ineffective. Active listening is a process of listening to hear what the person intends, rather than listening for what the listener wants to hear. It requires shutting off the pre-dispositional mind. Active listening requires understanding what the speaker intends for their reasons. It requires asking clarifying questions while staying on the topic or issue presented. Communication requires letting the other person make their point before making yours.

Don’t scramble your communication; trusting relationships depend on it.

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