In April of this year, we saw the stunning images of a black hole for the first time, and the dynamics of that awesome (and I use the word advisedly) system reminded me of the true nature of communication.
It’s a grave mistake to think that communication is linear, as in: I speak, you listen; I send, you receive. In fact, communication is a spinning circle, where the way I speak affects the way you listen, and the way you listen affects the way I speak. Just as the sphere of superheated matter whirls around the event horizon of the Messier 87 black hole, so speaking and listening dance in a spiral toward a center, inexorably entwined and interrelated … But is their destination understanding and harmony, or is it disconnection and conflict?
All Toastmasters know the importance of training in the art of skilled speaking, and I expect you share my dismay at the fact that we barely teach children in school how to use the human voice, this wonderful instrument that we all play. It’s a scandal if children leave school unable to read or write—but the far older, richer and more powerful skills of verbal communication are largely taken for granted in our education system. And if speaking is given pitifully inadequate attention, listening is scandalously ignored. It’s hardly mentioned at schools—barely taught, never tested.
The importance of listening may be easy to miss because it’s a silent skill, but mastering it is fundamental for effective communication. Given our educational bias, it’s not surprising that we continue to focus on sending rather than receiving when fully grown. As evidence, my TED Talk on speaking has around five times as many views as my talk on conscious listening! Social media has only served to propagate and intensify the addictive attachment we have to what I call personal broadcasting.
“Because you listen through ﬁlters, your listening is as unique as your ﬁngerprints.”
However, if you want to speak so that people really want to listen, you must understand what listening is and be an expert listener yourself. So let me suggest some perspectives on listening that may surprise you and offer you some exercises to improve your listening.
Listening Is a Skill
It’s easy to assume that listening just happens, like hearing—but they are two very different things. Hearing is a physical, chemical and electrical process, as automatic as breathing. By contrast, listening is purely mental. Using all your memories and stored experiences, your brain seeks to recognize patterns in the sounds received, and then you do two things: You select what to pay attention to (mainly new sounds or sound patterns you know to be significant—for example, your name) and you ascribe meaning to those sounds. That’s why I define listening as making meaning from sound.
Listening is an active process, a skill. You can practice it, develop your ability and do it in different ways. Becoming conscious of this is the first step toward being a good listener, because when you accept it, you become responsible for your own listening.
You Listen Through Filters
The way you select what to pay attention to, and what to make it mean, is a result of listening filters you have developed throughout your life. They all affect how you listen.
- Language. Vocabularies and semantics vary widely, channeling both your selection and your meaning-making.
- Culture. Family, ethnicity, city, tribe or clan, chosen peer groups and nationality all shape your listening profoundly.
- Values, attitudes, beliefs, assumptions. You accumulate these from parents, friends, teachers and role models. Strongly held, these cause some of the world’s most intractable listening challenges. And below the surface, you have many assumptions about how other people tick and what they are thinking, which also filter how you listen to them.
- Intentions, expectations, emotions. In any conversation or situation, you may have a goal or an expected outcome—and your emotional state will powerfully affect your listening too.
We can’t sense everything around us, or even process all the sensory information we do collect, so reality is actually just perception: It’s the map, not the territory. Your listening filters actually create your reality, because they determine both what you choose to listen to, and what you make it mean.
Everyone’s Listening Is Unique
Because you listen through filters, your listening is as unique as your fingerprints. You are the only person in the world who has traveled your road to this place and this moment. Your personal path has formed your unique listening. It is a very common mistake (including for many public speakers) to assume “everyone listens like I do.” They don’t!
“I deﬁne listening as making meaning from sound.”
You Can Change Your Reality
You can change your map! You do this by taking control of your own listening, which starts with becoming conscious of your filters. When you are conscious of something, you can start to change it, and by changing your filters, you can change your own reality, exploring different listening positions.
You Always Speak “Into a Listening”
Whether you speak to one person or 1,000, you always speak into a listening. If you become aware of this, you will start to hit the bullseye with your speaking far more often; ignore it and you may miss the target altogether. Simply ask: “What’s the listening?” in every situation and you will develop the skill of attuning yourself.
Access short videos with free listening exercises created by Julian Treasure.
Julian Treasure is author of How to be Heard: Secrets for Powerful Speaking and Listening. His five TED Talks about sound and communication skills have been viewed over 80 million times, and his talk on powerful speaking is the sixth most viewed of all time. Treasure is founder and chairman of the audio branding consultancy The Sound Agency.