Authentic Listening

‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’ – Jimi Hendrix: Purple Haze

People listening to Purple Haze have heard ‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’ instead of ‘Excuse me while I kiss the sky’ so frequently that it has become the title for an online compendium of misheard song lyrics. The archive also contains Elton John’s line ‘I remember when Iraq was young’ and Queen’s ‘the algebra has a devil put aside for me’. Fortunately there are few consequences for mishearing a song, save embarrassment (Someone I know who thought Bon Jovi were Livin’ on a Prairie has not yet lived it down). However, failing to listen at work can cost you dearly.

‘Donald Duck took my chances’ – Survivor: Eye of the Tiger

In the worst case scenario, failure to listen could result in total crossed wires leading to a waste of time and effort for everyone involved. More likely than failing to listen at all and embarking up the wrong tree entirely is failing to listen authentically. Minor misalignments, out of sync priorities, missing details and confused timescales will all cost. The cost might be in lost opportunities, damaged relationships, disagreements, or missing out on repeat business.

The examples of song lyrics on this page (and accompanying cartoon) demonstrate misheard words. There’s not much to advise if you simply hear something other than what was said, other than to apply your common sense.  A more subtle and more common problem is misinterpreted words. The 500 most frequently used words in English have 1400 definitions between them. The same words can mean different things depending on geography, industry, and public and private sector. An office can be a building, a space within a building, a title or a group.

‘There’s nothing that a hundred men on Mars could ever do’ – Toto: Africa

There is a clear need to pay attention to avoid mishearing but, when it comes to misinterpreting words and meaning, does the fault lie with the speaker?   Should they express themselves more precisely? No – the onus is on the listener to understand from the speaker’s point of view. Whilst you can realistically expect clients not to be totally ambiguous, you can’t expect everyone who speaks to you to deliver a comprehensive request, specific in every detail (if they did you may well be cursing them for being too meticulous).

Authentic listening involves communication. That means asking questions if there is any ambiguity. Be alert to areas of known ambiguity – a ‘report’, for example, does not mean the same thing to everyone. Each of us has an understanding of words and language unique to our experiences, knowledge and perception. There needs to be a certain amount of communication between two different people to establish an understanding. Authentic listening requires talking.

‘Money for nothin’ and your chips for free’ – Dire Straits: Money For Nothing

There’s an old adage about having two ears and one mouth. We should listen more than we talk. But the mouth is still there. If you’re listening, you don’t want to seem as if you don’t understand. But, unless the speaker has delivered a thorough proposition covering all eventualities there will more than likely be a valid question raised. A sensible question on a key area of ambiguity actually demonstrates that you have been listening.

It may sound rather twee, but it is as important to listen for what is not said. Spotting the blank spaces where a miscommunication could occur and filling them by asking a question will save time, money and reputation in the long run. Authentic listening builds a relationship and creates a shared understanding. If you listen authentically, each conversation will be clearer than the last and results will improve accordingly.

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