Last week Jon posed a question in our Common Grounder Facebook Group. Which skill is the most important in reaching a common ground solution? He offered us several answers to choose from: listening, patience, integrity, brainstorming. By community vote, listening was the overwhelming choice.

A discussion ensued suggesting that while listening is important, listening isn’t enough.

It reminded me of a personal experience.

When Listening Isn’t Enough

Last year, my father received a heartbreaking medical diagnosis. When he met with a specialist to discuss treatment options, he brought along three other people — my aunt, who is a nurse, me and my husband. He was following advice from many friends and family members. Because of the emotions involved and the technical language used, it’s a good idea to have someone else there to listen when you are receiving challenging medical information. We all figured, if one person is good, three people are even better. So we packed into the exam room and waited for the doctor and his nurse to arrive.

The appointment lasted almost thirty minutes. The doctor was informative, kind, patient, and thorough. My dad came equipped with questions to ask the doctor about his diagnosis, and we all paid close attention as the doctor shared about treatment options. All four of us listened closely, and I even took notes.

I was amazed when a few days later, as three of us were discussing the appointment, we all had different recollections of a few things the doctor said. We called my aunt to see what she heard and got still another version of the conversation.

It was clear we had all been listening. It was clear we had all formed opinions about what the doctor said. But we were not standing on common ground.

Though my father asked questions about his disease, none of us asked the doctor follow-up questions. None of us sought clarification. We all listened, but then we all processed the information individually. We all heard and then digested the information using our personal filters.

Sometimes, listening isn’t enough.

Everyone carries baggage through this world, and that baggage affects us. Our experiences and opinions color everything we hear, whether we realize it or not. We all have biases, preconceived notions and prejudices. We see and hear the world through a very particular, very personal filter. That’s what makes communication so darn difficult! Even when we listen carefully, we don’t always hear accurately.

Take a Moment to Clarify

In a highly-charged or emotional conversation, our biases filter every word. They set our thoughts down different paths and bring to mind past experiences that color what we’re hearing. When allowed to run amok, our filters influence our understanding and can adjust how we hear the things others say.

Asking a question to clarify that we understand what we think we’re understanding, is a simple but effective way to ensure we’re on the same page.

That’s why follow-up questions are vital. Even when we listen carefully, paying close attention to what someone is saying, our personal filter causes us to hear something the other person isn’t saying at all. Asking a question to clarify that we understand what we think we’re understanding, is a simple but effective way to ensure we’re on the same page.

This, I suspect, isn’t a new concept for you. It sure isn’t for me. It’s a lesson that I’ve been taught several times in my life and still struggle to learn. True confession: Sometimes follow-up questions feel unnecessary to me. I have a propensity for believing I’m bias-free, I’m an excellent listener, and I have a flawless memory. Why would I need to clarify? I hear you.

But often I don’t.

The most-effective, though occasionally tedious, remedy is using a clarification follow-up question. It’s the time-honored conversation staple, “What I hear you saying is [fill in the blank].” It gives others the chance to help you hear what they are saying accurately. Of course, these magic words only work if after you say them, you stop speaking and give your conversation partner an opportunity to correct you if you’re wrong or affirm you if you’re right. Oh and, you have to listen again AND believe them.

A Step Toward Common Ground

Effective communication is the first step toward common ground. Both parties have to be willing to do the hard work to achieve it.

I wonder if we had used the “What I hear you saying” technique when we were sitting in that exam room with my dad, our recollections might have been more in line. Thankfully we had access to the doctor to get clarification. Thankfully we used follow-up questions when we did. Thankfully we’re all on the same page, and my father is undergoing treatment and doing well.

On the path to common ground, it’s easy to be tripped up by our personal filters and believe our biases. Even when we prepare for common ground conversations, adjust our expectations, and listen carefully, there can still be hiccups. Taking the extra time to get clarification means that even if you don’t agree with what the other person is saying, at least you can be sure you heard them accurately.

Featured Photo by Sebastian Muller on Unsplash
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
The journey toward common ground is one of many steps. Listening carefully is important, but what happens when our biases and filters muck up the process? Here's how to move forward when listening isn't enough.