There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the [other] and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person.

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing.

G. K. Chesterton

Who would you say has the most power—the speaker or the listener? To me, this is an interesting question.

Often in our trainings we ask people who come to consider that they are not really ‘hearing’ what’s being said as much as they are ‘hearing’ what they are saying about what we are saying…

Most people have heard of or know the dynamic that humans see and hear through filters. Our filters, just like water and air filters, allow some things to pass through and screen out others elements. Filtering is related to interpreting.

I can’t count the amount of conflict has happened in my relationships (including my marriage and with my children) that is the result of me interpreting, or misinterpreting, what is being said in a negative way.

In our marriage workshop, one of the things my wife Dawn and I talk about is negative sentiment override1. It is the dynamic that takes almost anything a partner may say and interprets it in a negative manner. The result is the relationship gets worse and worse. This is an example of sifting through a filter.

The Scripture also points out that the way we listen is developed and meant to serve our preference: Job 34:3 says: For the ear assesses words as the mouth tastes food. The ramifications of this dynamic are powerful and somewhat scary. Maybe it also indicates that we train our listening only to hear a way we’ve decided and won’t let info we ‘don’t like’ enter our consciousness.

Now, extend this concept to how we ‘listen’ to our own thoughts. I think we listen to those with discrimination too—perhaps hearing and grasping the negative ones and ignoring or invalidating the positive ones (or vice-a-versa).

In light of all these concepts I assert that the listener has equal, if not more, power than the speaker. I am not saying that the speaker doesn’t have any—what we say is important. Proverbs 18:21 says: What you say can preserve life or destroy it; so you must accept the consequences of your words. But even when hurtful or destructive things are said, the one hearing can investigate what they heard and check in if that was what the speaker was intending. If it was, then there is more to discover. It indicates that there is something off and perhaps to account for by one or the other.

One of the principles we use as trainers is to remember that the meaning of our communication is the response we get. That is a challenging concept, but if you think about it, what you say doesn’t ultimately matter as much as what is heard by the listener. So, when the response doesn’t align with what the communication intended it’s an opportunity to check in, adjust, and go again. We must also remember that our communication is more that our words. It’s also our tone, our facial expressions, our body language, and our mood. We may not be aware of a lot of this communication from us.

If the results of your or others listening is not opening up new possibilities then it’s time to adjust and or investigate what is producing the unwanted outcomes. I encourage you to explore what is being heard instead of arguing about what you think is being said. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.


1The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Gottman, John; Silver, Nan (1999).