A Classic Example of Listening Bias

My son takes sailing lessons in the summer at a wonderful little club in Rhode Island. This is his third summer taking lessons, and he likes it. But, at least for now, our son prefers just messing around in boats and has not developed a thirst for racing. Our entire approach to parenting is based on giving our kids opportunities, and allowing them to gravitate towards the things they love and that interest them. So, if he doesn’t want to race, that’s fine. “When you are ready” is a frequent mantra in our home.

Earlier this summer, we took our son down to our club for the Monday night junior races. He wasn’t going to race, but we were going to watch and have a nice night out on the water. He actually ended up riding with the sailing instructors, and my wife and daughter and I watched from another boat. Beautiful night, and fun was had by all.

Afterwards, I was speaking with one of the other parents whom I did not know. This parent said “I have never seen you here before,and I said “well we are new at this.

By “this,” I meant “new at the Monday night junior racing scene.” But this parent assumed I meant “new at the sport of sailing.” So this parent, with all the best intentions, proceeded to educate me on the sport of sailing, assuming I knew nothing, and further assuming that I was a parent who did not know how to sail but who was trying to get my child into the sport. Again… this person could not have been nicer, and was completely well-intentioned. But, when they heard the phrase “new at this” there were multiple assumptions immediately made.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I have a long connection to sailing… alternate on the 2000 Olympic Sailing Team… multiple national and North American championships… and Team Leader for two Olympic Sailing teams, in 2008 and 2012. But I decided to keep all of that to myself, and politely took in all the advice I was being given. It WAS good advice, for the parent who did not know the sport.

Later on I found out that this person was projecting onto me their own experience. This person WAS the parent that did not know how to sail, but who had successfully gotten their children into the sport.

This was a classic (but totally benign) case of listening bias. This person heard “new at this” and immediately attached their own experience onto me. “New at this” could have meant many things… new at Monday racing… new to the area… new to the club… new to parenting a young racer… new to the sport entirely… we could keep going. “New” could have been defined in lots of ways.

But this person heard my words through their own lens and their own experience. And then spoke to and advised me through that lens, their lens.

I share this story because we all do this… I am sure I do it also. We are all prone to hearing things through our own lens, filters and experiences. And we all need to be careful of this. If we are going to communicate well in the 21st century, we need to really embrace different perspectives and experiences. Great listening skills are about more than just hearing and remembering the words. Great listening skills today are about hearing and remembering the words, AND keeping an open mind on what those words might mean. Not everyone’s experience has been the same as yours.

This was a simple, well-intentioned example of listening bias. I have gotten to know this parent better, and in fact, once they figured out my background, we had a laugh about that first conversation. All good. But we all still need to be careful, because not every example of listening bias will be this benign.

Have a great day.

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– Take too long to make decision?
– Fail to ask for what it wants or needs from you?
– Make things too complicated?
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2 responses to “A Classic Example of Listening Bias”

  1. Debasish Shome says:

    Excellent reading and learning

  2. Julie says:

    Very good advice, Dean, and shows the importance of communicating well with listening and speaking. ‘New at this’ could have been more detailed with ‘new at Monday night junior racing scene’ instead. Communication is definitely a two-way street.

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Dean Brenner

A book about change

The Latimer Group’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.