Home » Listening, Listening & Decision Making, Sales

Speaker or Listener: Who’s Responsible For Misunderstandings?

Submitted by on Monday, 21 September 2015

kids-00144-2There’s been an age-old argument in the communication field: who’s at fault if a misunderstanding occurs – the Speaker communicating badly, or the Listener misunderstanding?


Let’s look at some facts:

1. Speaking is an act of translating what’s going on internally into communication that enables others to understand an intent – choosing the most appropriate words for that particular listener in that particular situation. But the act of choosing is unconscious and may not render a full or accurate representation of what is meant.

2. Listeners translate what they hear through a series of unconscious filters (biases, assumptions, triggers, habits, imperfect memory) formed over their lives by their:

  • world view,
  • beliefs,
  • similar situations,
  • historic exchanges with the same speaker,
  • biases on entering the conversation (like sellers listening exclusively for need).

What a listener hears is fraught with so much unconscious filtering that their ability to hear accurately what’s meant is untrustworthy, except, possibly, when speaking with someone known over time.

3. According to David Bellos in his excellent book Is That a Fish In Your Ear?, no sentence contains all of the information we need to translate it. As listeners, are we translating accurately? What parts of what we hear are biased?

Unfortunately, too often we expect listeners to understand us when we believe we have spoken clearly. Listeners might accurately hear the words spoken (depending on many unconscious factors and filters), but it’s another story when listeners attempt to understand what’s meant because our brains don’t tell us what it has unconsciously left out or interpreted subjectively. So while a speaker might say ABC, we might think ABL was said, and adamantly, stubbornly believe we’re correct when we’re not.

Since communication involves a bewildering set of conscious and unconscious choices on both sides, accuracy becomes dependent upon each communication partner mitigating bias and disengaging from assumptions; the odds of communication partners accurately understanding the full extent of intended meaning in conversation is unlikely. It’s quite a complicated mess of factors.

My new book What? Did you really say what I think I heard?  focuses on listening: how we mishear, misunderstand, and otherwise misinterpret, and where and how the gap between what’s said and what’s heard occurs. I even came up with ways to avoid misunderstanding altogether.

While researching and writing the book I realized that the responsibility for effective communication is heavily weighted in the court of the listener. If listeners don’t have skills to catch or prevent their biases or unhook from their unconscious, subjective filters, or at least realize when they might have misinterpreted what’s been said, the speaker’s words and intent are  moot: they may be misconstrued regardless of their accuracy: regardless of how ‘clear’ a speaker thinks she is, there is no way to tell how the communication will be interpreted.

The listener is the wild card given the number of biases he brings to the table. So as a rule, after a speaker speaks, she must then become an alert listener herself to make sure the response received is within the bounds of acceptability. Or check in with the listener to agree on mutual understanding. Given there are so many subjective, unconscious filters on both sides, it’s amazing we communicate at all.


Sharon Drew Morgen is the NYTimes Business Bestselling author of Selling with Integrity and 7 books how buyers buy. She is the developer of Buying Facilitation® a decision facilitation model used with sales to help buyers facilitate pre-sales buying decision issues. She is a sales visionary who coined the terms Helping Buyers Buy, Buy Cycle, Buying Decision Patterns, Buy Path in 1985, and has been working with sales/marketing for 30 years to influence buying decisions.

More recently, Morgen is the author of What? Did you really say what I think I heard?  in which she has coded how we can hear others without bias or misunderstanding, and why there is a gap between what’s said and what’s heard. She is a trainer, consultant, speaker, and inventor, interested in integrity in all business communication. Her learning tools can be purchased: www.didihearyou.com. She can be reached at sharon@sharondrewmorgen.com; 512-457-0246. www.sharondrewmorgen.com