What is listening, really?

Interpretation: Our Intentions, Expectations, Mood and Beliefs

 Most leaders are skilled at external communication and trained in the areas of articulation, presenting, active listening, body language and emphasizing tone of voice.  As a matter of fact, most research says that 7% of our external communication is the content and the words we speak, 35% is our tone of voice and the remaining 58% is body language.  Many leaders are very skilled at optimizing these elements of communication.  However, many leaders are not aware that the true power of communication lies internally.  The majority of communication is in the person interpreting the external communication.

How we interpret events, situations, content, body language, etc. gives rise to our response.  This interpretation is rooted in four key elements:

  • Our Intention – what is it we want to have happened as a result of the communication?
  • Our Expectations– what are our expectations of the person we are communicating with or the situation at hand?
  • Our Mood – what is our mood? Are we angry, edgy, happy, joyful?
  • Our Beliefs – What are our core values? Our beliefs about the way life works?

These four elements shape how we interpret external communication.  For example, as someone who travels a fair amount, I often see examples of this dynamic in airports. Last week when a flight was delayed an hour, I observed two different interpretations and responses to this situation.

  • Passenger A Interpretation:  Acceptance   “I go with the flow, it is what it is”
    • Intention: Wanting to get home safe
    • Expectation: The airline is keeping us safe by making sure that they do not fly an unsafe aircraft
    • Mood: Peaceful
    • Belief: Life works better when I go with the flow instead of trying to control what I can’t control
  • Passenger B Interpretation: Anger  “This is happening again, can’t believe the airlines can get away with this!  They need to do something about this and soon!”
    • Intention: Wanting the airlines to take care of their passengers
    • Expectations: The airline should not have all these issues and should be on time
    • Mood: Anger, Frustration
    • Belief: I am paying a lot of money and the airline should care about their customers

As these passengers acted out of these interpretations they led to different results.

  • Passenger A – Positive relationship with a flight crew and gate agent, an enjoyable flight home
  • Passenger B – Conflictual relationship with a flight crew and gate agent, a frustrated flight home

Although the situation was the same and the external communication of the airline was consistent, the person doing the listening had the power to get different results.  As leaders, we forget that our power is in managing and articulating what goes on below the water (intention, expectations, mood, and beliefs).  The more we become aware of these elements, the more we can shape our listening in a way that receives more positive results.

Listening is truly the way we interpret a situation or a conversation. Interpretation is the point in the listening process where you are able to plan your response.   Our interpretation can be very fluid and flexible, sometimes we think it is rock solid.  As leaders, let’s build muscle in paying attention to these four elements (intention, expectations, mood, and beliefs) and shape our interpretation to get better results.

High-performing executive and physician leaders often have learned to focus on effective listening and careful interpretation.  They realize that their interpretation is simply one way of seeing things and that there are multiple options.  This practice encourages strong emotional intelligence and often leads to better teamwork and better decision-making within the organization.

Photo of Cheryl D. Foss, MSW

written by:

Cheryl D. Foss, MSW

Executive Coach