Listening and Hearing - is there a difference?

Listening and Hearing – is there a difference?

The short answer is ‘yes’ - but it begs the question as to why that might be the case. In my earlier blog post I spoke about the value of listening with an empty mind to really be able to hear what’s being said. The objective is to get the whole message, not just the bits you’re interested in. That’s the first step.

But what does ‘empty’ really mean and how does that relate to hearing the message?

With practice, you can train yourself to avoid interrupting and not jump in immediately with your story. However, there’s more to it than that. An essential ingredient to hearing is to be aware of our filters – the way we interpret things based on our experiences. Our filters are like our ‘judging’ senses, helping us to make sense of what we’ve heard (or seen, touched and smelt).

Filters represent our individual take on life that we amass over time. They represent immutable factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, education and upbringing, as well as the multitude of experiences that we’ve encountered in our lives that have all inevitably all helped to form our belief systems.

So back to listening - it’s great that you’ve listened to the whole story someone has just told you. But what if there’s something you don’t agree with, don’t understand, or it’s simply outside your own realms of experience? How will that affect what you’ve heard and understood? Hugely, I believe.

As Professor Mark D. White, Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY notes, your perception of what you’ve heard can be due to language itself. Language is inherently vague, words can have different meanings and even the order in which we put words together into sentences can alter our perceptions. To make things worse, sentences are often incomplete in terms of ideas because generally we assume a certain level of knowledge resides in the listener.

Assuming background information can be dangerous. Every different geographical area, industry, or ethnic community, as well as our own ‘group’, can have its own slang and shorthand. This can bewilder newcomers or outsiders as it introduces differences in sentence structure, intonation, word choice, and tone. Ever asked a question of an IT guru if you’re technological challenged? Did you understand the answer? Probably not.

Professor White goes on to say that that how we speak (as well as listen) is a result of our personal history, experiences, impressions, beliefs, values, and more[1] And guess what? The person who’s speaking is a different person to you.

Wow. This is getting complex. You listen one hundred percent, yet you might not understand the language itself; you could be unaware of cultural differences, but you may not know the subject matter first-hand and/or the shared information does not sit comfortably with your own belief systems. It’s amazing any of us ever get enough clarity to hear and understand, let alone agree on anything.

So is there light at the end of the tunnel for us to listen, hear and understand? Definitely! Our very receptive and plastic brains can help us to make sense of communication by hearing and changing our responses through awareness and conscious thinking. In other words by suspending our assumptions and judgments:

“Beliefs are not just cold mental premises, but are ‘hot stuff’ intertwined with emotions (conscious or unconscious). Perhaps, that is why we feel threatened or react with sometimes uncalled for aggression, when we believe our beliefs are being challenged! …The sensory inputs we receive from the environment undergo a filtering process as they travel across one or more synapses, ultimately reaching the area of higher processing, like the frontal lobes. There, the sensory information enters our conscious awareness.

What portion of this sensory information enters is determined by our beliefs? Fortunately for us, receptors on the cell membranes are flexible, which can alter in sensitivity and conformation. In other words, even when we feel stuck ‘emotionally’, there is always a biochemical potential for change and possible growth. When we choose to change our thoughts (bursts of neurochemicals!), we become open and receptive to other pieces of sensory information hitherto blocked by our beliefs! When we change our thinking, we change our beliefs. When we change our beliefs, we change our behaviour.” [2]

Aristotle is often attributed as writing “we are what we repeatedly do”. It’s a rather wonderful quote, although it appears more likely that Will Durant[3] is the correct source. I’m only tempted to add:

‘We are what we repeatedly do and think.’

If you want to listen, hear and understand more – a mind empty of assumptions, open and reflective, is a great way to start.

[1] White, M. D 2011, ‘Why we don’t hear each other’, Maybe it’s just me, But … weblog post on Psychology Today

[2] Sathyanarayana Rao, T. S., Asha, M. R., Jagannatha Rao, K. S., & Vasudevaraju, P. 2009, ‘The biochemistry of belief’, Indian journal of psychiatry, Vol 5, Issue 4, pp 239-41.;year=2009;volume=51;issue=4;spage=239;epage=241;aulast=Sathyanarayana

[3] Durrant W. The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers