The Science of Listening

How our brains help to create what we hear.

How our brains help to create what we hear.

MGEN’s Chairman of the Board Kevin Sharer recalled his moment of epiphany. “The best advice I ever heard about listening — advice that significantly changed my own approach — came from [then IBM CEO] Sam Palmisano, when he was talking to our leadership team. Someone asked him why his experience working in Japan was so important to his leadership development, and he said, ‘Because I learned to listen by having only one objective: comprehension. I was only trying to understand what the person was trying to convey to me. I wasn’t listening to critique. I wasn’t listening to object. I wasn’t listening to convince. I was listening solely for comprehension.’ ”

As organizations have become flatter, more virtual and increasingly far-flung, it has become axiomatic that effective leadership is predicated on effective communication and, in particular, on finely honed listening skills. Yet, according to Ram Charan, a noted business adviser who has worked with top executives at some of the world’s most successful companies, “Corporate leaders’ 360-degree feedback indicates that one out of four of them has a listening deficit — the effects of which can paralyze cross-unit collaboration, sink careers and, if it’s the CEO with the deficit, derail the company.”
Charan was referring specifically to a deficit in the kind of listening Palmisano described — a complex skill known as active or empathetic listening in which the listener suspends his own frame of reference and fully attends to the speaker’s. The listener avoids engaging in immediate judgment, prejudice, assumptions, rebuttal or criticism. He is open not only to the spoken word, but also to body language and emotional subtext. He does not try to evaluate or solve problems in the moment, but simply restates to the speaker what he believes he is hearing so as to confirm the mutual understanding of both parties.

That kind of listening is difficult to master, in part because it is at odds with today’s frenetically multitasking, information-overloaded, distraction-driven world, but perhaps more importantly because it runs counter to the way our brains have evolved to function. Our listening brain is wired to do exactly what active listening discourages: evaluate input, predict outcomes, make judgments and perform triage, all on a moment-to-moment basis. That mode of functioning, according to recent thinking in cognitive neuroscience, evolved as the brain’s strategy to use its finite neural capacity efficiently.

“Rather than waiting to be activated by sensations, [the human brain] is constantly generating predictions that help interpret the sensory environment in the most efficient manner,” wrote Harvard Medical School neuroscientist Kestutis Kveraga et al. in a 2007 paper, “Top-down Predictions in the Cognitive Brain.” “There are many statistical regularities in our environment and the brain uses them to short-cut processing in similar future situations. The primary principle is that the brain extracts coarse, gist information rapidly, and uses it to generate predictions that help interpret that input. [It] continuously employs memory of past experiences to interpret sensory information and predict the immediately relevant future.”

That means that listening is largely a top-down, strategic, cognitive process. Techniques like positron emission tomography and functional magnetic resonance imaging reveal what happens when we listen. As we take in the stimuli of the speaker’s words, the prefrontal cortex, which enables organizing and prioritizing, lights up with activity as we continually vet the incoming information against what we know, our past experiences and our theoretical construct of the future.

In one of a series of papers on the subject, Karl Friston, professor at the Institute of Neurology, University College London, wrote: “The brain models the world as a dynamic system. Perception is the optimization or inversion of that model. Cortical responses can be seen as the brain’s attempt to minimize the free energy induced by a stimulus and thereby encode the most likely cause of that stimulus. This is clear evidence that the brain is sensitive to the probabilistic context in which events are encountered.”

According to Andy Clark, professor at the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences at Edinburgh University, this is a great advantage: “The capacity to use what you know to outweigh some of what the incoming signal seems to be saying can be hugely beneficial when the sensory data is noisy, ambiguous or incomplete — situations that are, in fact, pretty much the norm in daily life. This underlines the surprising extent to which the structure of our expectations, both conscious and non-conscious, may quite literally be determining much of what we see, hear and feel.”

That further suggests, said Clark, that perception is inextricably tied to understanding and imagination. If conscious perception is a predictive, top-down process in which the brain continuously compares incoming information to what it already knows about the world, then that reservoir of knowledge is what we call understanding and that top-down process, when operating in a free-floating way without external stimuli, is what we call imagination. In fact, researchers from Washington University in St. Louis have found through advanced brain imaging techniques that the mental processes of remembering the past and envisioning the future are strikingly similar.

“In other words,” said Clark, “the human brain is deploying a fundamental, thrifty, prediction-based strategy that husbands neural resources and, as a direct result, delivers perceiving, understanding and imagining in a single package.”

Viewed from that perspective, then, the challenge of active, empathetic listening requires no less than a willful override of the brain’s preferred mode of operation. It requires that listeners quell the brain’s biological need for efficiency, prediction and planning and employ a purely bottom-up process to become truly open to the input of others. As Ram Charan concluded, “Truly empathetic listening requires courage — the willingness to let go of the old habits and embrace new ones. But once acquired, these listening habits are the very skills that turn would-be leaders into true ones.”

If we each are indeed creating our own individual perceptions, perhaps empathetic listening is what enables those perceptions to dovetail into collective understanding. In his 1949 classic, “Language in Thought and Action,” S.I. Hayakawa expressed it this way: “A human being is never dependent on his own experience alone for his information. Even in a primitive culture he can make use of the experience of his neighbors, friends, and relatives, which they communicate to him by means of language. Therefore, instead of remaining helpless because of the limitations of his own experience and knowledge, instead of having to discover what others have already discovered, instead of exploring the false trails they explored and repeating their errors, he can go on from where they left off. Language, that is to say, makes progress possible.”

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