Home » Communication, featured, Listening

How Listening Filters Cause Misunderstanding

Submitted by on Monday, 27 November 2017

WhatWhen researching my book on closing the gap between what’s said and what’s heard, I was surprised to learn how little of what we hear someone say is unbiased, or even accurate. Seems we hear what we want to hear, and not necessarily what’s been meant; too often we don’t know the difference. There are several elements that conspire against accuracy. And sadly, it’s largely out of our control.


Let me begin with my definitions of ‘language’ and ‘communication’:

In dialogue, language is a translation process between a Speaker’s thoughts – translated and verbalized into a delivery system of ideas, words, voice (tone, tempo, pitch), and the unspoken goal/bias of the outcome sought – and the Listener’s filtering system.

A completed communication is a circle – Speaker -> Listener -> Speaker: the Speaker translates an internal thought/idea through language to their Communication Partner (CP) who listens through their own unique and subjective filters, and responds to what they have interpreted. Until or unless the Speaker’s message has been received accurately, the communication is not complete.

Language itself is one of the problems we face when attempting to accurately understand what a Speaker means:

  • We speak in one unbroken stream of words (Spaces appear only between written words.) that can be differentiated only by those familiar with the language and vocabulary (Have you ever asked a question from a language book in a foreign country and get a response in a continuous stream of sounds that can’t be isolated to allow you to look up words to translate?) Since everyone speaks in word streams, our ears have become subjectively habituated to listen for patterns within them; our brains continue down those pathways even if the Speaker’s intent isn’t matched.
  • Words have uniquely nuanced meanings for each of us. The words a Speaker chooses that impart understanding may not be the best word choices for our Listener whose subjective filtering process may not match, or indeed instigate the wrong interpretation.
  • Our brains only remember spoken words for approximately 3 seconds. By the time our brains separate the individual words to glean meaning, we’re lagging ‘behind’ the speaker, so we rely on our unconscious habits and thinking patterns to bridge, or fill in, gaps in understanding. Obviously, it’s easiest to accurately understand people we’re similar to.

Arguably the largest detractor of accuracy for understanding our CPs intended message are the cultural, experiential, belief, education, and intimacy gaps that create subjective and unconscious filters in us all. These filters – biases, assumptions, triggers, habituated neural pathways, and memory channels – unconsciously and automatically sift out or transform what our CP says that’s uncomfortable or different from our beliefs, our lifestyles, etc., or aren’t in line within the goal of what we’re actively seeking in the exchange.

While we each assume that what we ‘hear’ is an accurate representation of what’s been said, often it’s not. With our subjective listening filters uniquely interpreting what others say, we can’t help but

  • bias their intended message subjectively,
  • make inaccurate assumptions, miss important ideas, requests, and emotional cues,
  • follow established memory channels and neural pathways that lead us to wrongly interpret what was meant,
  • mishear directions, rules, warnings, nuance, names etc.,
  • take away mistaken comprehension,

and on and on. As sellers we ‘hear’ that people are buyers; as coaches we ‘hear’ people complain of stuff we know how to fix; as leaders we ‘hear’ our teams convey they’re on-board (or not) with our ideas; as change agents we ‘hear’ rejection rather than alternate approaches or shared concerns; as parents we ‘hear’ our teenagers making excuses.


Simplistically, here’s our unconscious listening process:

  1. We first listen through a hierarchy of historic and habitual filters, unconsciously seeking a match with our biases, beliefs, and values – and delete or alter what seems incompatible.
  2. With what’s left from the initial round of filtering, our brains seek a match with something familiar by sorting for a similar memory, which could focus on just a term or one of the ideas mentioned, or or or, and throws away what doesn’t match without telling us what’s been omitted or misconstrued! We might accurately hear the words spoken, but unconsciously assign a vastly different interpretation from the intended meaning.

And because we’re only ‘told’ what our brains ‘tell’ us has been said, we end up ‘certain’ that what we think we hear is actually what’s meant. So if someone says ABC we might actually hear ABL, without knowing what our brains added, subtracted, or muddled. I once lost a business partner because he ‘heard’ me say X when three of us sitting there, including his wife, confirmed I said Y. “I was right here! Why are you all lying to me! I heard it with my own ears!” And he walked out in a self-generated rage. His brain actually told him I said something I never said and he never questioned it, even though three people told him he misheard.

I know this is disconcerting but it’s important to understand: Listeners always assume what they (think they) hear is what has been said. And where this diverges from the Speaker’s intended meaning, we end up responding to an inaccurate understanding, blaming our CP for miscommunicating, and never consider that just maybe we unwittingly got it wrong.

It all happens automatically and unconsciously, and we end up involuntarily misunderstanding without realizing, until too late, that there is a problem. Indeed we have no conscious ability to tell our brains what to search for when we’re listening, causing us to potentially hear a fraction of a fraction of what’s meant; we then compound the problem by responding according to what we THINK has been said. So we might get self-righteously angry, or perceive we’re forgiven; we hear people as racists or healers or sarcastic or buyers; we feel slighted or complimented or ignored; we think ideas are stupid and opinions absurd. And in each instance, we miss the possibility of a partnership, or a new concept, or a conversation or relationship that might have been.

In summary: the structure of language itself causes confusion when listening to Others; our subjective filters – biases (of which there are hundreds), assumptions, and triggers – are unconscious impediments to what we think we hear; our neural pathways, habitual associations, and memory channels automatically, and subjectively, get triggered by a word or phrase and go down their own well-traveled path to seek a match, potentially eschewing more relevant or accurate routes to understanding; our brains don’t tell us what it’s omitted or transformed, leaving us potentially misunderstanding – without question – what our CP meant to impart.

And it’s all unconscious. According to Sarah Williams Goldhagen in Welcome to Your World, our unconscious (or ‘nonconscious’ as she calls it) is approximately 90% of our attention, and only 10% “…patterned and schematized in a way we can interact with others.”(pg 59) So misunderstanding is virtually built into our communication.


Unfortunately we have no automatic capability to hear a Speaker’s intended message accurately, regardless of the Speaker’s word choices or the Listener’s commitment to listening ‘carefully’, regardless of the costly wordsmithing done in many industries to lure Listener buy-in. But as Listeners can take an active role in consciously managing our listening filters to encourage greater understanding. For this we must circumvent our biased listening; we must learn the skill of avoiding listening for meaning solely from the words.

From birth, we’re taught to carefully listen for words (and Active Listening has a part to play in this predisposition), assuming, falsely, we’ll translate them accurately. We can, however, circumvent our normal filtering process by shifting our attention from listening to words to listening for meaning; listening for what’s meant, rather than for what’s said; listening less to the words and more for the Speaker’s underlying intent.

Let’s walk this back. Remember that Speakers speak to impart an underlying thought (I call this the Metamessage) and then unconsciously select the most precise words – for that situation, for that Listener – to do so. But these word choices might not be the best ones to garner accurate understanding in that particular Listener. Certainly, a Speaker has no idea how a Listener’s filters will interpret the sent message. This becomes more obvious when speaking to a group and some members understand, others misunderstand. To circumvent misunderstanding, to have a greater chance of hearing what’s meant and eliminating the factors causing misunderstanding, we must take filters out of the listening process.

There’s a higher probability of hearing others accurately if Listeners bypass the normal filtering process and instead focus on the Speaker’s intended meaning. I learned the basic concept while studying NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming – the study of the structure of subjective experience) and expanded it in my book What? Did you really say what I think I heard?  When listening we can actually go beyond the brain and experience a broad view (not intimate details) of what’s being meant.

To avoid our listening filters, to get the broader meaning behind the idea intended, we must go ‘up to the ceiling’ and listen as a Witness/Observer. A very simple example would be if someone said ‘I wish you would be on time more often’, the Metamessage might be ‘I hate that you’re late again. And I’m getting tired of waiting for you all the time!’ We do this naturally when speaking with a small child, listening with for what they mean to tell us, rather than focus on their possibly unskilled wordsmithing. Or when we overhear a conversation in a Starbucks. In both instances we’re Observers.

We don’t know how to consciously choose; the problem is we don’t know how to consciously choose to do so. To choose the Witness/Observer viewpoint, think of a time when you’re aware you were listening without any personal agenda and break down how you did that – how you knew when it was time to disengage from the words, what you noticed that was different, how it shifted your communication exchange. If it’s something you want to learn, I’ve written an entire chapter on this (Chapter 6) in What?.


Here are two cold call interactions that exemplify the difference between listening for words vs for Metamessages. The first is a dialogue of a coaching client in which I was teaching him how to sell with integrity. He started out fine, but then dissolved into his old push technique when he interpreted the prospect’s words according to his own filters:

BROKER: Hi My name is Jeff Rosen. I sell insurance and this is a cold call. Is this a good time to speak?

CLIENT: Hi Jeff. Thanks for calling but I’m just walking out the door.

BROKER: “IonlyneedtwosecondsIwouldliketocomeandseeyounextweek.”

The prospect hung up.

SDM: What was that????? You started off great! And he responded kindly.

BROKER: I had to talk really fast because he said he was busy.

Listening for the spoken words through his filters, my client only heard a time constraint and didn’t ‘hear’ that the prospect stayed on the line and didn’t hang up. Listening from a Witness/Observer position he would have heard that the prospect was polite and hanging in with him, and made another choice: “I’ll call back when it’s convenient.” Or “Thanks. What’s a better time?”

In a very similar situation, I made a cold call to the Chief Training Officer at IBM; you’ll notice that both of us listened for the Metamessage instead of the words:

NANCY: [The world’s fastest] HELLO!

SDM: You sound busy. When should I call back?

NANCY: Tomorrow at 2.

And we both hung up.

This continued for 3 days with the exact same dialogue. Finally we had this exchange on day 4:


SDM: You still sound busy.

NANCY: Who are you?

SDM: Sharon Drew Morgen, and this is only a cold call. I can call you back when you’re not so busy.

NANCY: What are you selling?

SDM: Training for a facilitated buying model to use with sales.

NANCY: I’ll give you 5 minutes.

SDM: Not enough.

NANCY: 10 minutes.

SDM: Not enough.

NANCY: OK. I’m yours. But I want to know how you just did what you did. How did you get me to speak with you? How do I feel so respected when you’re cold calling me? How did you get me to give you so much time? And can you teach my sales team how to do that? Can you come next month? [Note: I ended up training with them for two years. I didn’t even have to pitch.]

Both of us listened with our Witness hats on. Nancy heard my Metamessage: by immediately hanging up after getting a time, she ‘heard’ me say that I respected her time. Calling back at the requested time told her I was responsible. Telling her it was a sales cold told her I was honest and wasn’t going to manipulate her. And by me abiding to her time frame she abided to mine. Indeed, I ‘said’ none of those things in words; the meaning was the message I intended to send. My goal was to connect if possible and serve if able. To connect, I’d have to value her time, not push; to serve I’d be honest and responsible. So she ‘heard’ me, beyond the words. It was win/win.

So here’s a suggestion: For those times it’s important to understand the underlying meaning of another’s communication, and you cannot risk biases and assumptions that might significantly alter the outcome, I suggest you go up to the ‘ceiling’ and listen from Witness/Observer.

This is a great tool for those of you who are Active Listening proponents. When listening to correctly capture the words spoken, understand your brain will bias how you interpret them and you may not achieve clarity as to the intent of the message. In my experience, AL doesn’t ensure understanding and too often puts the ‘blame’ of misunderstanding on the Speaker.

Try listening from the ‘ceiling’ from Witness/Observer. It might make a difference. And if that’s not comfortable at least clear a way to understanding in each important conversation:

Before we continue, I just want to make sure I understand what you mean to say.
Here’s what I heard…. Is that accurate?  

Communication is delicate, as are relationships. Take the time to ensure you and your Communication Partner are on the same page. And delight that a shared understanding inspires possibility.


Sharon Drew Morgen is an original thinker, and author of 9 books, including the New York Times Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity, and the Amazon bestsellers Dirty Little Secrets – why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell, and What? Did you really say what I think I heard? She is the developer of Change Facilitation, used in sales (Buying Facilitation®), coaching, leadership, and management – any influencing situation in which integrity, ethics, and collaboration are involved. Sharon Drew is a speaker, trainer, consultant, and coach for sales and listening. She can be reached at sharondrew@sharondrewmorgen.com; her award winning blog has thoughtful articles on change, systems, decision making, and communication. www.sharondrewmorgen.com