Listen Past The Noise

Jul 28, 2021
people enjoy a quite night above a noisy city

Four behaviors that improve every conversation

The human brain is marvelously wired to help people interact with other people.  The ability to communicate with language – to tell stories, ask for help, and share information - may even be our evolutionary advantage.[1]

To enable communication, our brains evolved to take in and filter incredible amounts of data, then sort it so that we can make judgements on how to act or respond.  We hear something, label it, and act on it, often without intentional thought.  This allows us to respond to danger, save energy, and act in ways we know work – all using hardly any actual thinking time. 

The problem is that human decision-making is imprecise.  And imprecise judgement very often produces distracting and destructive variables - or what psychologist Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow; Noise, A Flaw in Human Judgement) calls "noise."[2]

Noise - the constant bombardment of distractions, data, and imprecise judgements - is often the reason a conversation goes completely wrong. Listening, not just the third grade “put on your listening ears” variety but Epic Listening is the most effective way to inoculate against noise and improve every conversation you have.

The Biology of Noise

Most people think of noise as external - the cacophony of sounds that are always around us. Jazz musicians are expert at listening through noise and hearing the unexpected or undefined sounds around them.  Dan Rubright is a jazz guitarist, composer and teacher who uses jazz as a metaphor for leadership.  He taught me that all sound – birds chirping, waves crashing, planes overhead, or people talking directly to us - is just data turned into frequencies and processed by the brain to become notes, sounds and words.  

From data to a sublime jazz run is a complicated journey. Frequencies turn into sound-waves in the ear canal, which vibrate the ear drum which forwards them to the cochlea, where system of fluids and hair cells create electrical currents and chemicals, which travel to the brain for admission. (Too much science? Try this cool video that follows a few musical notes from air to brain.) Finally, the “hearing part” of your brain decides whether or not this new data gets in, what to call it, and what to do with it.

Phew! In a split second we’ve already bumped into two filters:  one deciding which frequencies we are able to hear, and one deciding what, if anything, to do with the data.  Nine times out of ten your brain matches the incoming data to existing brain maps and sends it off for automatic response.

To that complicated frequency trip, add all the distractions of modern life: phones, instant messages, giant screens, the culture of busyness, ambient noise, etc. All of that is hitting our brains and needs to be filtered. It’s a wonder we can make sense of much of what’s being said to us.  

Taking time to tune into what you are actually listening to is the first step in making sure you are actually getting the data you need.


It's Coming From Inside Your House

It’s the noise made inside your brain that has the most potential to cause big problems in human communications and decision making. 

The noise inside comes from all of the knowledge, experience, emotions, success, and failures you’ve accumulated throughout your life. David Rock’s Six Insights About the Brain states, “the brain hardwires everything it can.” That includes all the sounds you process, label and store as information.  Once that hardwiring is locked in, it becomes your default for every situation. It’s nearly impossible to make it go away.

On the positive side, that frees up all sorts of brain power for other thoughts.  On the dark side: we mis-categorize, mis-judge and often ignore really important new data.

We can’t undo that hardwiring.  But, we re-wire the brain to be on the lookout for new data and avoid faulty data.   Rewiring starts with Epic Listening.

Epic Listening helps break through noise and inoculates against the infinite variables in human communication.


Break the Noise with Epic Listening

 "The most helpful thing a person can do is to listen."  - Bob Chapman, CEO, Barry-Whemiller

When I was leading teams and organizations, I’m not sure it ever occurred to me the listening was a skill I could practice.  I like to think I had good conversations with the people in my span of care, but I can think of many that were just really frustrating. One in particular was a monumental failure; it lead to someone I really respected resigning from their job. Tension had been growing between Anthony and me over how to do a task.  He initiated a conversation to address the tension. Because I was so clear on how he should fix a problem, I spent the whole time trying to get him to see my solution.  Turns out that was just me being distracted by noise. The problem was my propensity to jump in and tweak things he had not finished working on.  If I’d been truly listening instead of solving, we could have resolved the tension so much more effectively.

Be a better listener.  That's great advice we’ve been hearing since we toddlers. What does good listening even mean? Are there specific, learnable and measurable ways to be a good listener?

Yes! After facilitating hundreds of listening workshops and diving deep into the biology and psychology of listening, I recommend these four behaviors that can transform a conversation from the first time you practice:

  • Tune In:  Do everything in your power to be fully present in the conversation, and let the other person know it.
  • Open Doors:  Add comments and open questions that help the other person think and say more about what they want to talk about.
  • Make Space:  Allow for silences in the conversation. Often real insights are unlocked in the spaces between words.
  • Connect the Dots:  In a succinct, specific, and generous way, help the other person move their thinking forward.

Practicing these four skills can transform any conversation.  Tuning in allows you to read all the parts of “the communication cycle” – not just words, but the nonverbals, spaces, and mood of what another person is trying to communicate to you.

Making space acts like a giant eraser, letting you start the conversation free of noise. It provides an extra few seconds you need to discern the optimal way to be of service to the person doing the talking.  When you tune and make space, you can more efficiently figure out what the other person needs:

  • Do they just need us to listen (the power of - and most leader's aversion to - venting)?
  • Do they need us to tell them how to do something (Teach or Mentor)?
  • Do they need help in solving a problem (coaching)?
  • Or, are they maybe just trying to make a connection – to build empathy and trust?

Most importantly, Epic Listening helps keep the conversation about the other person. When you can’t erase the noise completely, Epic listening helps you tune into what’s important to the other person.  It creates a fantastic bridge between introvert and extrovert communication styles – all the space lets internal thinkers find their words; it requires out-loud thinkers to chill out for a minute and let the other person be part of the conversation on their terms.

Epic Listening does take practice!  We’ve got a lot of evolution and technology to work past. (A quick warning: when practicing with a spouse or family member for the first time, please warn them up front about what you are doing.  People can get itchy when you suddenly give them your full attention.)

Epic listening works with people on your team (up and down the org. chart!), family, friends and strangers on a plane. Adding these skills to your conversation will go a long way to helping you build empathy, trust, and stronger connections with people.


[1] Harari, Yuval. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harper Collins. 2015

[2] Vedantam, Shankar. “Our Noisy Brains.” Hidden Brain. May 17, 2021.


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