One day in the 1960s, a little girl named Ginny was playing outside her apartment in Stamford, Connecticut. She said something to her 4-year-old playmate just before the girl launched a fist-sized rock at her. Ginny cried out and ran home, her forehead bleeding. Her mother rushed her to the hospital for stitches.

Ginny thought it must have been her words that caused the girl to lash out and hurt her. She must have said something wrong, and the girl was punishing her. She began to keep secrets. She began believing that other people weren’t to be trusted, and started listening through the filter, “I’m stupid. If I speak out, you’ll hurt me.”

Childhood Events Color Our Listening

According to Carol McCall (“LISTEN! There’s a World Waiting To Be Heard: The Empowerment of Listening”), we all have something happen to us during our formative years that we’re unequipped to handle. When it does, we make a decision that over time solidifies and colors our listening. We continue through life picking people to be around who will reinforce our childhood decisions and keep them in place. “The schools we go to, the friends we have, the people we marry, the jobs we take on will reinforce those decisions.”

The decisions are our way of coping. Ginny didn’t know that people behave in ways that can be hurtful and that may have nothing to do with her. She didn’t know that not all people are untrustworthy. She only knew what happened to her, and decided to protect herself by keeping her words to herself.

McCall says the filter we put in place as little people is universal. The filter is unique to each individual; and every person on the planet has one. These filters cloud how we see ourselves. They are the negative thoughts that play through our heads as we go about life (I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough, I’m not important, I don’t deserve this).

And they color how we listen to others. When someone is speaking to us, our minds are continually cluttered by thoughts like, “What are you getting at? . . I already know this . . . I’m so confused . . . Get to the bottom line . . .” Not only are we not hearing what the speaker is saying, we’re making assumptions, listening to what’s not being said, and even adding in all kinds of thoughts based on past events.

Here’s an example: Ginny, now 42, is at a meeting. Her boss asks her, “When will you have that report ready?” She thinks How dare he ask me that! He knows what a hard worker I am. Doesn’t he trust me? He’s always micromanaging. . . She retorts, “Before the end of the day, of course!” before storming out resentfully. Her boss is left wondering what set her off. Ginny hadn’t let him know her progress lately, and he needed to fill in a timeline on his own report. Ginny experienced all those negative thoughts—the upset—needlessly because of a decision she had made those many years ago.

Myth Busting Boosts Listening

The good news is, Ginny’s early decision is a myth. She wouldn’t have gotten where she is today if she were “stupid.” Once she understands this and lets the decision go, she’ll have cleaner communications with her boss. All of our pivotal childhood decisions are myths. It’s not true that we’re not good enough, or don’t have enough of what it takes, or are undeserving. These are opinions we hold of ourselves, and we can change them or let them go.

Shifting our self-perception is the beginning of mastering the art of listening. Without the myth, the filter begins to dissolve, and we start hearing the truth of what’s being said. We understand ourselves and others better, and can practice listening at higher levels—that is, listening without judgment, preconceived opinions or expectations. By dropping the early decision (opinion) of ourselves, we are free to hear. By dropping judgment of others we begin to hear what is really being said.

Eckhart Tolle (“The Power of Now”) suggests, “When listening to another person, don’t just listen with your mind, listen with your whole body. Feel the energy field of your inner body as you listen. That takes attention away from thinking and creates a still space that enables you to truly listen without the mind interfering.”

The Listening Continuum

Getting ourselves out of the way is the start of masterful listening. Thomas Moore puts it another way in “Care of the Soul.” He suggests it’s important to “soften the self so that life can happen.”

Life will happen whether or not we allow ourselves to soften, with or without the filters we put in place so long ago. Think how much easier and more rewarding it would be if we would soften and listen—how much better would be our relationships, our home and work life, personal finances, health and happiness. How much happier and healthier would we be as individuals, families, communities and the world!

Listening must not be an easy art to master, since books, courses and workshops on the topic are as plentiful as the stars. Listening takes time and patience and discipline. And the will.

If the ability to listen were rated on a continuum, with 1 being zero ability and 10 being masterful ability, where would you fall?

If you want to find out, go to, the website of The Institute for Global Listening and Communication (IGLC). You might be surprised to know how well you do listen, or how much better your life could be if you were to even slightly improve your listening. IGLC has a vision—100 million masterful listeners by the year 2020. Won’t you be one?

Author's Bio: 

Susan Rosenberg is a freelance writer living in Maryland. She is Vice President of Foggy Bottom Information Systems, and a certified trainer in The Listening Course, a workshop offered through The Institute for Global Listening and Communication. She can be reached at