Silence and Noise: The Twin Gremlins

By Laura Melton Tucker, February 28th, 2010

Listen to this entry.

The worst air disaster in history occurred because of a breakdown in communication.  In 1977, 583 lives were lost at the Tenerife airport when two 747’s collided.  There were many contributing factors, but the main cause of the accident was a communication glitch.  The two pilots reported their positions at the same time on the same frequency, which blocked them from hearing one another.   Hidden from view on the foggy runway, they spotted each other too late to avert the disaster.  It was a communication failure  of catastrophic proportion.  On a smaller scale, but with a similarly tragic impact for those who knew him, a young adult in our neighborhood was memorialized yesterday.  A childhood acquaintance of my son, the young man’s friendly demeanor gave me no clue about the pain he was in.   His suicide was a shock to the community.  “If only he had said something.”  Two preventable tragedies.  One related to listening, the other to speaking up.

Listening and speaking up are central to every mediation.  At a recent small claims mediation, two neighbors disputed  claims regarding the care of a pet.  What began as one neighbor’s generous offer to help the other during a move, ended in a pile of vet bills, hurt feelings and unkind words.  “Why didn’t you communicate with me?”  the plaintiff demanded of the defendant. The defendant sat silently, staring with teary eyes.  Just months before their court date, the opponents had been best friends.  At an impasse in the talk,  a witness for the defendant, her middle school aged daughter,  passed a paper across the table.  Looking at the plaintiff she said,  “I’m sorry you weren’t able to contact us. Here’s my email address.”  I was struck by the young girl’s clarity.   She was trying to remedy the situation by finding a different channel for communication, realizing that the silence between the adults at the table had contributed to the conflict.

On another day, at a different table (my own!), I observed an opposite communication dynamic.  An artful centerpiece, plenty of food, wine and more wine, couldn’t save my sinking dinner party.   Everyone was talking and nobody was listening.  Generally, I know things aren’t going well when there is either too much noise – everyone talking at the same time – or scattered noise – conversations splintering off into one-on-ones at our table set for eight.  Dinner parties get air-borne when shared story telling  brings the group together.  This night, people wanted to talk rather than listen.  The group didn’t connect and the party fizzled.

Effective communication is dual function dependent.  It requires both talking and listening. Picture an old-fashioned telephone headpiece; one end for the voice, the other for the ear.  In order for the two talkers to understand one another, they must speak clearly, as well as listen receptively.   But, listening and hearing aren’t the same thing.  Active listening  is deliberate and intentional.  To be an active listener, practice the following skills:

1. Pay attention.

Give the speaker your undivided attention and acknowledge the message.  Recognize that what is unsaid also speaks loudly.  Look at the speaker directly.  Put aside distracting thoughts.  Don’t mentally prepare a rebuttal.  Avoid being distracted by environmental factors.

2.  Show that you are listening.

Nod occasionally.  Smile and use other facial expressions.  Note your posture and make sure it is open and inviting.  Encourage the speaker to continue with small verbal comments like yes, and uh huh.

3.  Provide feedback.

Our personal filters, judgments, assumptions and beliefs can distort what we hear.  As a listener, our role is to understand what is being said.  This may require us to reflect what is being said and ask questions.  Reflect back to the speaker by paraphrasing, “What I’m hearing is…” and “Sounds like you are saying…”  Ask questions to clarify certain points. “What do you mean when you say…?” or “Is that what you mean?”  Summarize the speaker’s comments periodically.

4.  Defer judgments.

Interrupting is a waste of time.  It frustrates the speaker and limits full understanding of the message.  Allow the speaker to finish.  Don’t interrupt with counter arguments.

5.  Respond appropriately.

Active listening is a model for respect and understanding.  You are gaining information and perspective.  You add nothing by attacking the speaker or otherwise putting him or her down.  Be candid, open and honest in your response.  Assert your opinions respectfully.  Treat the other person as he or she would want to be treated.*

Silence and noise are the twin gremlins of failed communication.  Most of us make daily communication mistakes, without the dire consequences described in the opening.  But, like the daughter of the small claims defendant, we can strive to improve communication by keeping multiple channels open, and by making sure that both the giving and receiving ends of communication function optimally. The takeaway is that speaking openly and honestly, and listening receptively and actively,  transforms understanding.  Some days this is enough to save a dinner party, others, it might even save a life.

*Adapted from MindTools, “Active Listening

3 Responses

  • Vicki Philipps says:

    I loved reading this! Communication is everything but good communication requires good listening. Laura, you are one of the best listeners I know! I so appreciate that about you!

  • Leah Badertscher says:

    This is definitely written by one of the best listeners I have ever met – and clearly, you have a tremendous ability to articulate as well! I love this piece – comes at a time when I have discovered a newfound interest in “listening.” We all think we know what that means, but pieces like this cause me, anyone, to pause, re-examine, and hopefully continue to improve this invaluable life skill!
    Thank you!

© Peacewise Mediation, Iowa City. All rights reserved. Design by Christina Willner