Noise-Canceling Headsets for Our Listening

by Brad on May 6, 2012


Do you find that some people just rub you the wrong way, regardless of what they’re talking about, even if it’s a topic that matters to you? If so, you may experience only their “difficult presence,” missing the message entirely, taking things personally, or both. Why?

When we speak, we don’t just say what we intend to say. Our words come “wrapped in an envelope,” an unconsciously-generated package we deliver to others, made up of our life experiences and how we’ve therefore come to see the world. This “life story” often overshadows what we’re trying to say, and we end up failing to communicate well. If we could find a way to strip away the story, either as a speaker or as a listener, we’d have better conversations everywhere. How can we do this?

An analogy helps. Noise-canceling headsets for music “listen” for unwanted background noise (other voices, wind, coffee grinders in Starbucks, engine noise in airplanes), and then electronically “subtract” those noises out of the message that gets to your ears. This allows you to hear music (or just silence), unencumbered by whatever’s going on around you.

In my Constructive Conversations coaching programs, I help people “listen for story” in much the same way as these headphones work – not so they can attach to it (as we tend to do unconsciously), but so they can recognize it, then subtract it out of what they hear (as a headphone does), allowing the true message to come through more clearly.

It’s entirely possible to learn “noise-canceling listening.” When you “get” someone else’s story, you can let the story flow past you, so what’s left is “what they would have said if they could have said what they intended to say.” When you learn to listen in this way, almost nothing is personal anymore, and the potential for conflict in any conversation drops to zero (with any person, any situation, any topic.) Can you imagine the freedom you’d experience if you could communicate like this all the time?

There are as many stories out there as there are people. Listening for story, therefore, takes practice. Here are examples of a few common external behaviors people display, along with possible story lines that can explain them.

  • Behavior: rough/angry. Life story: “I’ve had to fight for everything all my life, therefore this must be no exception.”
  • Behavior: fake sweetness. Life story: “I’m so resentful for always having to be someone I’m not that all I can do now is pretend I’m happy.”
  • Behavior: always being right. Life story: “Criticism from others has made me so unsure of myself that I have to ‘be right’ all the time so no one will discover my fears.”

Try it out. Next time you listen to someone you find difficult, see if you can trace the “difficulty” to a story they carry with them. When you do, you can see that it’s neither about the topic nor about you personally, so you can let the story drop, and hear them in a new way. Don’t worry about “guessing wrong” as to their story; your awareness alone will allow you to hear others more effectively. With practice, you’ll become a better listener. This works for you as a speaker, too. See if you can identify your story. As you let that go, others will hear you in new ways, too. Constructive Conversations.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Brianne March 30, 2013 at 7:27 pm

OOOOOO, well said. And, perfect timing for me to read it having just returned from a family gathering, having witnessed their behavior and my own, having taken many deep breaths in while reminding myself, “it’s not personal, it’s not personal, let it go, be kind…” It has definitely gotten easier, this practice, over the years, but I wonder if the “attachment” will actually ever just go away.


dan joly December 1, 2013 at 5:59 pm

A very nice bit of coaching that I will practice. A noticing in action.


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