Hearing vs. Listening: Do Expectations Get in Your Way?

Hearing vs. Listening: Do Expectations Get in Your Way? May 11, 2016

We’re headed to Arkansas in a couple of weeks to see our granddaughter Brylee’s dance recital. Living six hours away, our time with her becomes a special occasion, since the distance prevents us from being the stop-for-ice-cream-after-the-soccer-game kind of grandparents that closer proximity allows.

Photo courtesy of pixabay.
Photo courtesy of pixabay. (This isn’t Brylee, whose privacy I want to protect, but I can tell you that she looks equally intent when she’s writing.)

Every time we get together, I think of my favorite story of spending time with Brylee. I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating. Partly because it makes me laugh every time I think about it. And, like pretty much everything in life, it has a lesson for us if we take a minute to look.

So, here’s what happened…

Two years ago, when Brylee was six, we decided to write a book together. We were at a family gathering during the holidays, and we were looking for something to do.

It all started when she asked me, “Have you read anything by Charles Dickens?”

My answer was articulate and profound: “Whaaat?”

Like I said, she was six.

“Charles Dickens,” she said. “He wrote Great Expectations.”

I gulped.

“Have you read it?” she asked.

Yes,” I said, completely confused. “How do you know about Charles Dickens?”

She told me that, in one of the American Girl Doll movies we’d given her, the main character had read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and now Brylee wanted to write a book about him.

She would call it, she decided, The Book About Charles Dickens.

Alrighty then. We sat down side by side and folded several blank sheets of paper in half so they could be stapled in the middle, creating the pages for a book. I agreed to write the title on the cover if she would spell the words for me.

And so we began. The first two words of the title were no problem. Then she carefully sounded her way through the word “About.” Now it was time for the rest of the title: Charles Dickens.

I made the “Ch” sound for Charles.

“C-H!” she said. We worked our way through the rest of his first name. Then I asked her to spell Dickens.

“C-H,” she started.

Hmmm. She was a good speller. I knew she wouldn’t have a problem with the D sound. So where did the C-H come from?

I asked her again. “Is that how you’d start the name Dickens?”

“No,” she said, looking at me like I was teasing her. “His name is Chickens. Charles Chickens!”

Ooooh. Of course. The revered author Charles Chickens. I clearly had not been listening.

Apparently I’d brought my own great expectations into this little project, and I’d heard what I thought she was saying. My assumptions literally twisted the words coming out of her mouth.

So, here’s the lesson part: We all bring assumptions into our conversations. But what if we didn’t? What if we tried to wipe the slate clean and hear people without jumping to any conclusions about what they’re saying? What would we learn from one another then?

Obviously I’m talking to myself here, but maybe this will resonate with you, too: If you feel yourself making assumptions about another person’s meaning, stop and ask a question to clarify. Use my husband Bob’s favorite lead-in: “Help me understand…”

What’s the person really saying? Can you get to the root of their emotion, their belief, their outlook on life without judgment or bias?

Can you tune into the difference between Dickens and Chickens?

Clearly, I’d had a conversation with Brylee, but I hadn’t truly heard her.

That’s why Charles Chickens will forever be my favorite reminder to show up in the presence of others without my own agenda.

Let go of expectations—great or otherwise—and simply listen.

Debra Engle is the author of The Only Little Prayer You Need. You can find her on Facebook and at debraengle.com.

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