How do emotions affect our ability to listen and respond?
One line in Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer has resonated with me since I first heard it in that classroom, especially when I consider the research on how we listen: “Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” Simon & Garfunkel certainly touched a universal chord with that line, didn’t they? What did the popular duo want us to “hear” when they penned those words? There are many interpretations, but for the purposes of this blog, let’s examine what that oft-repeated line has to teach us about our perception of emotions in communication. Why do we only seem to hear those things that we perceive will benefit us, while eschewing other things that we perceive as unnecessary? Moreover, why does the truth in that line arouse such an emotional response in us? For me personally, the words tap directly into my frustration at so often being a bad listener. In the next few blogs of this series, I hope to share a few salient points that I have learned, but not always practiced, about learning to listen more effectively and attempting to rid myself of some bad listening habits.
In an earlier blog we discussed the Schema Theory, which speaks directly to our ways of making sense of our world. We construct our realities based on our personal schemata, using them to attach meanings to what we perceive. We are constantly bombarded with more input than we can handle, so we make unconscious choices constantly about what to “listen to” and what to ignore. Following that selection of incoming information, our minds must arrange it in a way that makes sense to us. We organize people and events, often generalizing them to keep things simpler, such as “all women do…” or “all political rallies are….”
Next we have to attach meaning to our perceptions – is he smiling at me because he wants to be friendly or should I interpret that smile as a romantic come-on? Are you picking on me because we are such good friends and like to tease one another? Or are you genuinely irritated with my behavior? Again, the schemata kick into full gear: If a friend teased you so badly in the past that teasing crossed over to bullying behavior in your mind, how likely is it that you will jump to that conclusion whenever this happens again? Interpretation of this information helps us to make sense of it.
Finally, we influence the perception of others by a process communication theorists have termed negotiation. In its simplest terms, negotiation is the adage that there are two sides to every story. If I perceive that someone’s treatment of me is benign teasing, but another person witnesses it and tells me I am being bullied, I have a choice to make. Our interpretations are different; how do I negotiate this difference? Do I stubbornly cling to my perceptions or try to renegotiate them? Do I listen to what another has to say or disregard it?
To complicate things further, how I listen, what I choose to regard and what I choose to discard are all dependent upon a variety of factors, some of which I have no control over. In the next blog, we will look at what influences our perceptions and assumptions?