Tackling Our Mindset: Identifying Our Listening Filters

Posted by | Sep 8, 2016

Listening FiltersWhenever a client says, “Wow, you are an amazing listener,” my first thought goes to my husband. He often tells me that I turn off my professional listening skills when I walk through the front door. And it’s absolutely true. We turn our listening on and off, moment to moment. So what does this mean for visual practitioners who listen for a living?

“Listening is a choice and a competency”
—Anthony Weeks

Most often, we talk about listening as an interpersonal skill. There are trainings to teach us to be better listeners: focus your attention on the other person, prepare yourself to listen, emphasize, let others finish, pause before speaking, be mindful about body language, repeat back to show understanding, and more. These are important lessons, but they are focused on how one person listens to another. As visual practitioners, we are witnesses in the room. It’s a different dynamic. We must be more aware of how we listen in order to serve the process and the group.

“Hearing is a physiological phenomenon; listening is a psychological act.” Hearing is always occurring, most of the time, subconsciously. In contrast, listening is the interpretative action taken by the listener in order to understand and potentially make meaning out of the sound waves. Listening can be understood on three levels: alerting, deciphering, and an understanding of how the sound is produced and how the sound affects the listener”—Roland Barthes

In our work, listening can be broken down into multiple stages—hearing, filtering, and interpreting. Hearing is what we do all the time. The buzz of the refrigerator that we don’t notice anymore to the sounds of crickets that drive you mad at night. Filtering is how we choose to decipher and understand what we’re hearing. Interpreting is how we make meaning of information. Awareness of this process is critical because it directly impacts the marks we make on paper. If choices define our work as visual practitioners, then our listening filters are the most important tools in our toolkit. It determines how we understand what is being said in the moment.

I approach our work with three main listening filters—factual, empathetic, and sense-making.

  • Our factual filter focuses on the data—the facts.
  • Our empathetic filter focuses on the emotions and the experience.
  • Our sense-making filter focuses on relationships between facts

It’s important to note that no one filter is more important than the other. And we never listen with just one filter. It’s the combination of filters that direct our perspective. When we start to combine our filters, we also listen differently.

  • We listen for understanding when we combine facts with emotions or experiences (Factual + Empathetic)
  • We listen for connections and patterns when we focus on the relationships between data points (Factual + Sense-Making)
  • We listen for story when we identify relationships between emotions and experiences (Sense-Making + Emotions)

When all three are working in complete harmony, we listen for the collective experience.

What is your dominant listening filter? During your next meeting, take notes—visual or text. Before you start, take a moment to think about the dominant listening filters you use. Afterward, review your notes. What’s reflected on your paper? Are your notes filled with data and facts about the meeting? Are there numerous arrows to connect ideas together? Did you emphasize the emotions? Did you listen using one filter, but the notes reflected something different?

Our next post will explore how our listening filters are or are not reflected in our visual work. Stay tuned!

*My thinking is deeply influenced by Otto Scharmer’s Theory U, Kelvy Bird’s whole listening approach, and the Trium Group’s leadership/generative dialogue work.

Leave a Reply