Communication 101: How We Hear and React

We’ve all been there. We tell someone we don’t have time to talk right now. The get a stressed look on their face and say something like, “You never do!”.  Now your face turns red and you say, “I didn’t know time revolved around you!”… Fifteen minutes later everyone is wondering what the heck just happened.

Communication is an essential aspect of human interaction. We constantly engage in conversations, whether it’s with our friends, family, colleagues, or strangers. But have you ever wondered how we truly understand what others say? Let’s explore this model of how most people processes what they hear, which involves hearing, interpreting, and reacting, and how it so often leading to misunderstandings and emotional responses.

Step 1: Someone Say Something

Of course a conversation doesn’t start till someone says something. Often the first words spoken can set the tone for the entire conversation. And our words hardly make up the entirety of what we communicate. How we say something matters. But as a good friend of mine says, “You can’t unring a bell”, and the process is off and running.

Step 2: Hearing vs. Listening

The second step in communication is hearing what someone says. Hearing is a physical process; it involves perceiving sound waves through our ears. However, hearing alone is not understanding. Active listening is what bridges the gap between simply hearing words and comprehending the intended message. It requires that our mind is actively thinking about what the speaker is communicating. Too often we are thinking about how we will respond and that is the fast lane to disaster.

Step 3: The “Why” Story

Once we hear the words spoken (often we don’t wait to hear all that is said), we create a mental “why” story.  It’s our explanation of why the other person said what they said. Most the time the “why” story is more important to us than what was actually said.

The problem is that our “why” story is almost never 100% accurate and could entirely misrepresent the speaker’s intention! We fill in the gaps with our own interpretations, often projecting our emotions onto the situation. For example, if someone criticizes our work, our “why” story might jump to the conclusion that they are trying to undermine us, rather than considering that they may actually be trying to help us.  Often the “why” story we create is more of a reflection of how we think and feel than how the speaker thinks or feels.

If you think you are good at “reading between the lines”, you may be setting yourself up to have a lot of misunderstandings.

Step 4: Emotional Reactivity

Our “why” story leads to emotional reactions. If we perceive a comment as positive or supportive, we might feel happy and appreciated. Conversely, if we interpret a statement negatively, we might feel hurt, defensive, or angry.

This emotional reactivity can be problematic, especially when our “why” story is incorrect. Misunderstandings and conflicts arise when we react based on assumptions that may have no basis in reality. We might become defensive or confrontational, leading to a breakdown in communication and strained relationships.

Improving Communication

To foster better communication, we need to be aware of this model and actively work to improve our communication skills:

  1. Start With Why: Since we know people or going to create a “why” story anyway, when we speak, let’s start by telling them why we are saying what we are going to say.  We have to start with the “why” because we also know that most people won’t listen to everything we say…unless it is important to them! And most people care more about why we said something than what we said.  Before you critique someone’s work you might say, “I really want your presentation to go well. Would you be interested in a little feedback?”
  2. Practice Active Listening: Make a conscious effort to listen attentively, without interrupting or forming premature judgments. Show genuine interest in what the speaker is saying. A pause to think before you respond, even just 1 or 2 seconds, will give you a chance to “edit” the why story you are telling your self.  
  3. Clarify Assumptions: Recognize that your “why” story is almost always flawed. If you’re unsure about someone’s intention, ask for clarification, or paraphrase what they said back to them.  The question “what do you mean by that?” can save a lot mistakes and heartache. 
  4. Practice Patience – Slow Down: Avoid jumping to conclusions hastily. Give the speaker space and time to express themselves fully before formulating your response. Pausing and thinking means you care about the other person and what they said. You are much more likely to be trusted and heard if you are being thoughtful.  

These practices will help your conversations go much better, but there is one more thing that will make your life go much better.  Until someone proves you wrong, simply assume others have the best of intentions.  This makes your mindset so much more pleasant and you’ll find you are in general a more positive person.  You become someone people will want to converse with and you will raise the spirits of everyone around you.


Understanding the intricacies of communication can significantly enhance our relationships and interactions with others. By starting with why, actively listening, and simply slowing down, we can save some much misunderstanding and conflict.

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