What It Means to Really Listen

Be honest: are you really listening when your customers are talking? Here's how to defeat your "confirmation bias."
Innovation Evangelist, 24/7 Innovation
April 12, 2012

Last month, I was on a flight from Orlando to Boston that had a bit of a problem.

An hour before our scheduled landing in Boston, the pilot announced the main braking system was not functioning properly. Although the backup system would most likely work fine, the pilot and flight attendants were preparing us for the worst.

They carefully described the emergency procedures. They were very similar to the ones frequent travelers have heard many times before. But this time, you could hear a pin drop as they walked us through what would happen.  Everyone was paying attention.

Although I am on nearly 100 flights a year, I was listening in a way I never had before. The truth is, I rarely pay attention to the emergency procedures when we are not in an emergency situation.

This got me thinking: Do I ever really listen?

The answer is no. And regrettably, I am not alone.

Unfortunately even when you are trying to listen, you are still likely not really hearing properly.

Psychologists call this “confirmation bias." We are naturally wired to filter and interpret information to conform to our underlying belief structures. And very simply put, these beliefs cloud how we hear. We only take in those pieces of information that align with our beliefs, and we disregard anything that contradicts them.

Understanding confirmation bias can have a significant impact on your ability to have effective relationships. And as a small business owner, it can have a profound impact on your success if you're not hearing the true meaning of what your customers and colleagues are saying.

In the corporate environment, I’ve seen brilliant ideas proposed by recent college graduates that were completely dismissed by more senior people. But when those senior people said the exact same things, others thought they were geniuses.

A friend of mine recently attended a weeklong training class. When asked about the class, he responded that he was less than impressed with the instructor. When I asked why, he said, “It’s hard to listen to him. He’s dressed like a slob. His hair was a mess and his shirt was never properly tucked in.” The instructor’s appearance impacted how he was heard. Amusingly, on the last day of the class, his perspective changed. When pressed to understand why, I discovered the instructor had gotten a haircut and was wearing a stylish suit and tie. The change in appearance impacted how my friend heard the instructor. He claimed the instructor now “sounded more intelligent.”

As you read this article, I can assure you that your judgments are impacting how you receive what you are reading. If you want to actually absorb the value of what someone is saying, you need to know your natural biases.  This will impact your ability to innovate.

Listen better

The first step to listening better is to recognize the fact that you don’t. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you really hearing what others are saying?  Or are you only passively listening?

  • Are you focused on their words?  Or are you thinking about what you will say next?

  • Are you putting yourself in the shoes of the other person?  Or are you only interested in meeting your own objectives?

  • Do you ask a lot of questions?  Or are you doing all of the talking?

  • Are you hearing what they are really saying?  Or are you too colored by your own perceptions, judgments and filters?

This last question is critical. If you are honest, you will most likely begin to see that your filters are getting in the way of communication. By recognizing that you even possess these filters, you can become more aware when they begin to color your interpretations. This allows you the choice to set them aside so you can create an effective opening to listen.

Think about what your customers try to tell you. What are they really hoping to convey? What is the meaning behind the actual words they are saying? Are they angry and wish to be heard? Are they being quiet because they are scared of saying something that may offend? Are they just trying to help? If you can listen for their viewpoint, then you can better appreciate why they may be saying what they are saying so you can appropriately address their needs. This will lead to better service.

Your ability to listen effectively will impact your ability to innovate. Confirmation bias will reduce your ability to gather accurate insights about your customers and markets. In fact, numerous studies show confirmation bias drives companies to innovate on the wrong opportunity. A strongly held belief about what you think should be done to improve the business prevents you from hearing what really should be done.

When you recognize that you never really hear what is being said, you can begin to shift your listening. This will make you a better communicator and innovator.

Incidentally, our plane did not crash and the backup system worked perfectly. However, I am sure everyone who was on that plane will be listening more intently the next time the emergency procedures are read during takeoff. And maybe they will also listen to friends, colleagues and family members just a bit more carefully.

Photo credit: iStockphoto