The Science of Hearing, The Art/Heart of Listening

The Science of Hearing, The Art/Heart of Listening

“I’m listening with my Mickey Mouse ears on!“ The first time I heard that, I laughed out loud! For some reason it just hit me with an image that I’ve always remembered. Perhaps it’s the reason I have a set of Mickey Mouse ears (and a red heart shaped plate) in the drawer in the client area of my office. I often pull them out to make a point when couples are not listening. (More about that later!)

Hearing is a science. But it’s more connected to listening than we may think.

Let’s take a look at the science of listening.

When we hear something, our acoustic nerve is responsible for transferring information from our brain stem back to the inner ear. That is how sound is processed.

Each of our ears has a cochlear nucleus that takes bundles of signals from the acoustic nerve and separates them. It organizes them into pieces and sends them to the brain for interpretation.

Our auditory cortex (which is located in the brain’s temporal lobes, just above our ears) applies meaning to the information. It is often called the language center of the brain because it interprets sounds, turning those sounds into understandings.

Then our pre-frontal cortex becomes involved in a very complicated role. It doesn’t just process what it hears, but combines it with our body language, our facial expressions, and other inputs. Then mixes all those stimuli with our memories and emotions that relate to the subject.

You may say, what on earth does that have to do with the art of listening? It has a huge impact on what we hear. For example, what occurs in the pre-frontal cortex puts what we hear into perspective with everything else we have ever experienced. For example, if the listener grew up with a father who raised his voice and scared them as a child, and you have just raised your voice… part of the listener’s interpretation of what you have just said may have nothing to do with you. (But may be more about the experience with the father). Or if the listener was persuaded by promises to do something that got them into trouble when they were younger … the promises you are making now may be quite sincere, but interpreted by the listener as a danger.

Here’s the challenge… there are two pieces to healthy listening, and we normally only teach about one of them.

So let’s address the part of listening that we normally hear about. Robert Bolton in People Skills defines listening as: “demonstrating to the speaker that you understand their feelings and thoughts.” That indicates a lot more than just hearing words!

Perhaps Bolton’s definition is an apt description. Research indicates that most of us listen with an accuracy rate of 13-18%!  That’s both astounding and disappointing.

Let’s start with what listening is NOT, because these are things that deter people from listening. Listening is NOT:

  • Agreeing
  • Disagreeing
  • Consoling
  • Advising/Fixing

So what IS listening? Here is what I teach my Life Coaching students:

  • Closing your mouth and listening (zip your lips!)
  • Making eye contact when possible (not if you are driving!)
  • Putting away your lawyers (who sit on your shoulder and tell you when to object)
  • Putting away your analysts (who sit on your shoulder and tell you how ridiculous what you are hearing is!)
  • Putting away your judge (who sits ready to lower the gavel and have the final say!)
  • Listening for feelings, not just content (the emotions speak volumes more than the words!)
  • Watching for nonverbal messages (every movement carries a message!)
  • Avoiding distracting behaviors (rolling your eyes … I tell them there are no bugs crawling across the ceiling!)

These are the key components of healthy listening:

  1. Pay attention (put away cell phones and other devices)
  2. Let them finish (no interruptions)
  3. Ask questions to be sure you understand
  4. Ask if you may give feedback or a response

When discussing anything of meaning, I teach couples the beautiful process outlined by Dr. Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt. It requires a lot of emotional and relationship maturity, but it produces beautiful connection in a relationship. The first thing they invite couples to do is to develop a curiosity about what the other is saying, and even if you do not agree, to become curious about how they developed their train of thought. It helps us stay PRESENT and out of JUDGMENT.

Here are the steps:

  1. Reflect – Listen, and then summarize without judgment or interpretation.
  2. Validate – Whether you agree or disagree, offer validation by starting a sentence with “It makes sense to me _________.” Example: “It makes sense to me how you would feel unimportant if I speak to my ex-wife about vacation plans with the kids before I speak to you.” You may have an explanation (like I wanted to surprise you), but hold it until you complete the exercise.
  3. Empathize – Walk a mile in your partner’s shoes. Make your best guess how they are feeling, even if it’s not obvious. Begin a sentence with “I can imagine that you must feel ­                   .” Example: “I can imagine you must feel hurt, unimportant.” Then check to see whether or not you “got it.” If not, ask them to explain, then reflect that back.
  • Bonus: If the person sharing would like to request something, make a PSBCR (positive, specific, behavior change request. “Would you be willing to                                                        ?”

When I teach this process to my couples, I often pull out my set of Mickey Mouse ears, along with a 12-inch plastic heart. I invite the one speaking to hold the heart in their hands as a reminder that they are speaking from their heart, and not from anger or fear. I have the listener actually put the Mickey Mouse ears on their head to remind themselves that they are to listen carefully.

The two props keep people focused on a new way of communicating, as opposed to falling into old patterns of speaking over one another, and laying out criticisms or mean-spirited words.

Several years ago, I had a new couple come into my office and one of the first things they said was that I was their fifth therapist. I thought, “Oh my! God help me not be number five in their string of defeats.” I asked them both the question, “Why are you here? What do you hope I can help you with?” Within five minutes, they both had raised their voices, spoken on top of the other, repeated old horrible accusations, and called one another unthinkable names. I was the only person in the room listening.

I calmly said to them, “I would like for both of you to press pause for a moment, because you can do this at home for free. And I would like to help you.“ They both looked at me in shock and disbelief. Later they told me they were shocked about several things: that I did not raise my voice to interrupt them; that I did not start trying to correct them; and that I had said I wanted to help them.  

I know that earlier in my career, I may have reacted to their chaos by joining it! But like most of you, I’m older and wiser now and I responded in a way that was far more helpful. What I saw was two people who care deeply about one another but could not seem to get the other to hear them (the first step to meeting the other’s needs). And the more desperate each of them became, the more desperate their effort to take the spotlight and be heard.

First, I spent several moments teaching them a few of the concepts outlined above. Then I asked if they would be willing to share one thing each of them were grateful for regarding the other. The session took on a very different tone. I brought out the Mickey Mouse ears and the red plastic heart. I pointedly stated that it takes great maturity to be the first “listener” in a toxic situation.  Then I asked which of them felt the most mature at that moment. Because I stated it like that, they both instantly wanted to be the first listener! The husband immediately took the Mickey Mouse ears! The wife took the heart and began to share deep deep hurt about how his new business had taken the place that she once held in his life. The new business was now the recipient of his time, his focus, his devotion, his excitement, and the topic of every conversation. He listened carefully. He reflected, validated, and empathized. There were tears on both sides.

Then they exchanged the Mickey Mouse ears and the heart. The husband shared how he felt that she was unappreciative and unsupportive of his new business. He shared how her caustic comments and her withdrawal made him feel that the only place he found acceptance was in his business. He shared his deep hurt about arriving at home each night, only to find her playing internet games, which seemed more important to her than him or anything he had to share. There were more tears. She spontaneously moved from her chair and melted before him and his chair. They both held onto one another and said many “I am so sorry‘s!“ It was such a beautiful moment that I went over to my desk to give them some space. I picked up my phone and snapped a photo, Mickey Mouse ears and plastic heart included! Later I sent it to each of them.  I was surprised when I saw it on Facebook the following week. It was truly powerful, and I was honored to share a moment that was clearly quite sacred to them.

When I don’t tell the end of these stories, I get lots of comments at the end of my blog asking what happened to that couple? This story happens to have a very happy ending. Or I should say a very happy beginning. (I have a plaque in my office that says “true love stories never have endings.”) They are now working in their business together (which is quite profitable), and they are enjoying a very rich relationship. I know it’s rich because I ran into their teenage daughter who said, “My parents are disgusting… they act like teenagers in love!”

Those are the parts of listening that we are accustomed to hearing and learning about. Whether we are mature enough to practice them or not is another matter! I know you surely will be trying!

Now let’s look at the other part of listening that is not so much in our public discourse. This crucial part of “listening” actually has the speaker as its focus.  The core of this part of listening is that the speaker must make a conscious effort to speak so that the other can “hear, receive, and understand.”  This is the “heart of listening” … when the speaker is listening with his/her heart by noting the impact of what he/she is sharing on the listener.

How do you know if you are making a successful effort to speak in such a way? I’m so glad you asked! Because learning to recognize the effect of our sharing on our partner is a process. And, most of us could use that process to help create extraordinary communication in our most-cherished relationships.  Here are some responses to watch for:

  1. Watch the eye movements and eye contact of the person you are speaking to. If their eyes shift, or go blank or glaze over, chances are you are speaking in a manner that they cannot hear, receive, and understand.
  2. Watch the body language of the person you are speaking to. If you note them folding their arms, taking a step back, leaning back, turning their heads away, etc., it is a signal that you are not speaking in a manner that they can hear, receive, and understand.
  3. Watch for interruptions, either with words or other signals. For example, someone exhaling loudly and rolling their eyes. Someone jumping in with short phrases like “OMG!“ Or someone speaking over you. 
  4. Streaming tears. Tears often indicate that someone is touched. But sometimes tears accompanied by an expression of pain indicates that someone is being deeply hurt.
  5. Someone getting up or walking away.

All of these things are indicators that you are speaking in a manner that the other person cannot hear, receive, or understand. If you are “listening with your heart” as you speak, you will notice!

Let me give an example. Let’s contrast those that grew up in a family that practiced friendly debate (discussing political issues at the dinner table), with those that had a family where harsh debate was the norm (shaming, discounting, dismissing, etc.).  If you grew up in such a family, you might be accustomed to giving your opinions in a cold, hostile, “debate” format.  You may be accustomed to challenging your partners, proving to them that your point is right. Although your point may very well be right, to someone who grew up in a home where a parent constantly raised their voice and created “cases” against them, your case may not be heard at all.  Your partner may not understand what you are rightfully trying to share.  The listener cannot hear what is being said in way that does not work for them.

Note I did not say it was necessarily “wrong” to state cases bluntly, in a debate style. But the example is one where your partner may never hear you or feel safe with you if you speak in a way that alerts their pre-frontal cortex to danger.

So what do you do when you see any of the five behaviors outlined above? If you are truly wanting a sincere message to be communicated, and you are “listening with your heart” … first, press pause. Then, take these steps:

  • Ask them directly what it is about your communication style that is not working for them.
  • Ask them how you could say the same thing in a way that they could hear, receive, and understand.
  • Listen to their coaching, and try it again.
  • Ask how you are doing.
  • Take their coaching, try again, and do it until they are able to hear you.

When we really care about others, we should not have the expectation that they should adjust to our communication style. “Listening with your heart” means you are willing to adjust your communication style. This is where emotional maturity and relationship maturity come into prime focus. If we really want to be heard, received, and understood, we must become flexible in our communication styles.

Newspapers, talk radio and television have interviewed me about the uniqueness of my practice. First, they usually assume that it’s about some special exercises I do. Of course, I do work very hard to create experiential exercises that help people make transformations that are beyond what might be made by just talking things through.

Secondly, they assume that I am just an “overachiever” that attends every training and workshop available, thus keeping myself on the cutting edge of my profession. Although I am a big believer in research and training, and do as much of it as possible, I don’t find that to be the key to my unique practice.

The real key to the uniqueness of my practice is that I make a genuine effort to assess how each individual can best hear, receive, and understand what I am teaching.  I “listen with my heart.” Then I speak to them in that manner. At times, a client will ask, “But isn’t that whole process fake?“ This question is usually a defense mechanism.  They don’t want to make the effort to change the way that they are talking to their partner. After I go over this reality with them, we usually have a good (sometimes nervous on their part!) laugh about it. But of course there is nothing fake about it. If you really care about someone and have an important message you want to share with them, you must develop the art of speaking to them in a way that they can hear, receive, and understand. Listen with your heart!

As you begin to use the techniques I have laid out here, I believe you will find them to be incredibly helpful. Often it takes time. But that person you care about is worth the time. Don’t give up. Keep trying. And if you decide it would help, go get a set of Mickey Mouse ears and a plastic red heart! The art of listening on the part of the listener, and the heart of listening on the part of the speaker create an amazing relationship!

Wishing you extraordinary communication!