C-Suite Advisory

How To Listen To Avoid Miscommunication

Business meeting

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”. — George Bernard Shaw

Are you someone that tries to mind read others intentions when they talk to you, or perhaps you read a negative meaning in to emails whether it is there or not?

In the failing battle for effective communication we often create an imaginary world of intent, motivation, and conspiracy that can dramatically impact our mental health.

The worry about being liked, doing the right thing, or being found out as the impostor that we fear we are, can cause sleepless nights, and anxiety.

This is all unnecessary, and the chances are that it is miscommunication causing all of this pain.

According to Albert Mehrabian, meaning is created by just 7% of the words we use, 38% how we pronounce those words and 55% in our body language. This may not be entirely accurate, but I am sure we have all had experiences where we fully understand that the words used are not conveying the meaning intended.

The monotone “have a nice day” at the supermarket checkout, which means anything but, or the much more dangerous and icily delivered “it’s fine” in a romantic relationship.

Email and text messages are purely the words, and they will make perfect sense to the writer, but miscommunication will happen in the mind of the reader. A phone call is much more efficient at creating meaning, to the point that we can actually tell if someone is smiling, just from hearing their voice.

In person or on video call is the most effective way to communicate, but even then our ego can make assumptions. To combat this try to be aware of what level you are listening at.

Most of the time we are on automatic pilot, which Otto Scharmer, a professor at M.I.T, calls downloading. The aim is to move past this level, to identify new information, and have empathy.


We do this when focusing on the language that we have in common, that confirms our view of the world. If we label the world as the terrain, we can think of this as downloading our map on to the world. It is convenient perhaps, and may give us some psychological safety, but the map is not the terrain. The labels are our labels, our viewpoints, our judgements.

This is where we can start to get in to trouble. What we label as angry, stressful, punishment, or rude, did not necessarily have that same label from the communicator. We are bathing in confirmation bias.

Our ego is assuming we are speaking the same language.

Factual Listening

By focusing on what we do not know, and being aware that we do not have the full picture of what is happening, we identify new information that might even contradict our view of the world. We open up our mind to new ideas.

Empathic Listening

Often when we communicate we are listening from a viewpoint of what we would do, or how it impacts our own lives. To listen empathetically is to put our ego aside, and to see the situation through the eyes of another person. This can be particularly powerful when utilised with building rapport, and opening up our hearts.

Generative Listening 

This is the highest form of listening, and is doing so with a view of the future. It is focusing on what is hoped to be achieved by the discussion and identifying the excellence in it. This is recognising the struggle the other person is having, and seeing what the best possible transformative solution is. It can be thought of as the butterfly that can be born from this caterpillar.

Often in this state time will pass quickly, it is frictionless communication.

The chances are that you will spend most of the day communicating by downloading. It is quick and easy, and does not require much additional thought. It is a regurgitation of already established opinions and beliefs.

Imagine what would happen if you actively tried to move up the levels of listening. To seek the information that is new and contradictory by asking clarifying questions. To see the world through another person’s eyes and feel what it is like for them. To put your ego aside and to witness what the emerging future could bring, the best possible outcome that may even teach your something about yourself.

Written by Darren Horne.
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Darren Horne
Educator, consultant, motivational speaker, author, writer, media, and communications specialist; helping organisations understand the value of leadership and communication in creating an engaged and creative workforce. Darren Horne's the author of Level Up Your Teens: A guide to hack your life. Darren Horne is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.