Recreating Your Listeners State of Mind

It is in your mind. Full of clarity. No confusion or missing pieces. You believe that you could not have communicated your message with any more precision or directness.

BAM! Nailed it.

And then a few days later you start to hear the scuttle. The amazing message or vision you relayed was not interpreted correctly by the listening ears. In fact, what you believed to be motivating and clarifying actually caused frustration.

Why is that? Why is there often such a gap between what I say and what is heard? In an age where we are inundated with information, I want to be sure that what I intend is what is received.

A book full of sticky ideas

I am reading a very interesting book called Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others DieThe story is told of a graduate student at Stanford who did an experiment. She had two groups of people. One group was assigned as “tappers” and the other as “listeners.” The tappers received a listing of 25 common songs such as Happy Birthday to You and The Star-Spangled Banner. 

Each tapper was to select a song and tap out the rhythm for the listener by knocking on a table. The goal was for the listener to correctly guess which song was being tapped out.

Over the course of this experiment, there were 120 songs tapped out for the listeners. Can you guess how many were guessed correctly? Only three. Three songs were figured out. Here is what was interesting though. The tappers were asked to predict what percentage of songs they thought were going to be correctly guessed. The tappers said 50% when in reality only 2.5% of the listeners made a correct prediction.

Perception does not always equal reality

That is an astounding gap sometimes between perception and reality. The tappers thought their message got across 1 time in every 2 songs, but the reality is that the message got across only 1 time in 40 songs.

The root issue is that the tappers had been given knowledge of the song title that the listeners simply did not have. The tapper was very clearly hearing the tune in their head, but to the listener the knocking on the table brought no clarity to their ability to decipher a song. It was mostly just indiscernible noise.

This is referred to as the Curse of Knowledge.

It’s hard to be a tapper. The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge. When they’re tapping, they can’t imagine what it’s like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song. (p.20)

What an amazing concept. Amazing because it answers many questions for me about how my communication fails – at home, at work, with my friends.

When I “know” something that I want to communicate, the curse of knowledge makes it very challenging for me to remember what it was like not to know that knowledge. And in forgetting that, I often communicate like the tapper of the songs: my message makes perfect sense to me but I cannot grasp why it does not make perfect sense to my listener.

And like the tapper, I often make the assumption that my listeners “get it” for more often than they actually do. So I go away “hearing my song” and they go away “hearing knocks on a table.”

And this creates obstacle after complication after dilemma. But the ownership does not lie with the listener. It must be owned by the communicator.

Let’s go back to the story about the tappers and the listeners. No matter how deliberately the tapper knocked on the desk and no matter how intently the listener tried to discern the melody, it simply was not going to work. And it is not the responsibility of the listener to get up to speed or simply “give it more effort.”

Who owns the change?

It lies with the one giving the message. The issue is not in the speaking of words; the roadblock is in the connection. And this principle applies in myriad examples: talking with my wife, shepherding my kids and grandkids, mentoring another leader, discipling an individual, communicating strategy, or casting vision.

How many times have I conveyed without connection? Too many times. And how many of those opportunities have I then turned around and thought “They just don’t get it.” Guilty again.

As the author states, it begins with recreating my listener’s state of mind. As much energy invested into how the message is received as to how it is conveyed. When I can anticipate in my own mind the roadblocks that my listener may encounter, I have done a great favor for the one hearing my message.

Communication is essential – it sways decisions, convinces naysayers, and moves to action. Am I taking as much time to assess how the “the tune in my head” is being received by my listener? If not, you may just end up with a message that sounds like tapping on a table: focused and accurate content misunderstood as noise.






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