We Hear What We Expect to Hear

While looking for an old file, I found the following exercise from a communication skills workshop I used to teach. The exercise is about how listening works, but as I read it over, I realized it also has a lot to do with reading — and by extension, writing.

Here is the exercise, from my instructor notes, complete with discussion points in green italics:

Read the following to the group:

Not long ago I was crossing Beacon Street at Murray Avenue. Traffic wasn’t very heavy, but I noticed some kind of disturbance off to the side. Well, I was crossing the street and didn’t want to jam up traffic or get hit, so I continued across, then stopped and looked back. Then I saw what was going on:

A big woman in a black dress was pushing and shoving and even hitting two or three young kids.

They were maybe ten or so years old...not yet teenagers. They didn’t seem to be fighting back.

A crowd gathered. I heard a siren screaming off in the distance, but I didn’t think much about it.

Then, a couple of minutes or so later, a police officer ZOOMED up in his car, and without stopping to talk to anyone or doing anything else, he rushed in, and quickly led the woman to his car and drove off.

1. When did this event take place? Not specified. "Not long ago..."

2. Was I walking, driving or bicycling? Not specified.

3. Why do you think this incident was important enough for the police to arrive with siren screaming? People will make assumptions and jump to conclusions. Nothing is said to support any conclusions.

4. What do you think the woman had done to break the law? It does say that she was pushing and shoving. But it doesn’t say why. Perhaps the kids had assaulted her???

Conclusion: We hear what we expect to hear ...

You’ll notice that the story lacks certain details, but take my word for it: the listener’s mind does fill in the blanks. The same thing happens with readers. You may notice that something is missing, but you’ll still go ahead and fill in the blanks with an image or outcome from some aspect of your own experience. You can probably think of several times in your life when this has happened to you, with outcomes ranging from amusing to disastrous.

Writing prompt: write a story about a listening fiasco. You may want to write it as a theme story with several examples. You may be the listener or the one who is not understood.

Sometimes this works to the writer’s advantage. If your purpose is to stimulate thought, you may make a conscious decision to omit certain details to force the reader’s mind to wander.

More generally, you’ll be writing about your own experience, with the intention of accurately conveying your point of view to your readers. Let this fragment of my past remind you to be discerning about the degree of detail in your stories. Use enough to create a full and accurate picture, and not so much the point of the story gets lost.

I’ll encourage you yet again to look for a lifestory writing group in your area for an objective assessment of your level of detail. If you can’t find a group, start one. Send me an e-mail (ritergal@gmail.com) and I'll be happy to send you information on how to go about this.

Write on,

Sharon Lippincott, aka Ritergal

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