Why Good Communication Skills Can Be Hard

Humans are social beings and verbal communication is hugely important. If we don't "get" what our conversation partner is saying, effective communication becomes impossible. Accurate and effective communication is essential for our personal lives and for our business and work lives. If we want to be good parents, loving spouses, effective leaders or competent employees, we need good communication skills.

Yet, many of us seem to fall short when it comes to good communication skills: A google search of "communication skills training" yielded 841billion results! The most important communication skill is listening. But, here's a research study showing that we hear what we expect to hear. And is why listening carefully is the most important communication skill.


In this study, nineteen adults listened to sequences of sounds while their brains were scanned in an MRI scanner. Each sequence contained 7 similar sounds and one deviant sound that occurred randomly at position 4, 5, or 6. After each sequence, the participants pressed one of three buttons, as quickly and accurately as possible, to indicate whether the deviant sound occurred at position 4, 5, or 6. They listened and responded to 240 sequences in all.


The participants responded faster to deviant sounds that were predictable (i.e. in the 6th position, because if the sound hadn't occurred before then, than it had to occur in the 6th position) than to sounds that were unpredictable (in position 4 and 5).

The researchers were interested in two main subcortical regions responsible for auditory processing: the inferior colliculus and the medial geniculate body.  

They found that the interior colliculus and medial geniculate body only encoded deviant sounds that were not predictable. What these areas of the auditory processing region recorded was prediction error.


The normal state of the brain is prediction. 

The brain is continuously predicting what a stimulus means. Our brains are built from past experience and, consequently, reflect our past experience: This is our internal model of the world. The brain takes the incoming stimulus, compares it to our internal model of the world, and predicts what the stimulus means. Prediction is what enables us to respond quickly. If the brain waited until it had all the information before it responded, we would be slow to make decisions, recognize danger, notice things in our environment. It would make driving impossible, all kinds of sports would be impossible, and, of course, communication would be impossible. But this prediction ability has survival benefits: If you're out in the woods and you think you see a bear, you don't want your brain to wait until it's absolutely sure it's a bear. You want it to predict that it is a bear and get the heck out of there fast before the bear sees you.

We hear what we expect to hear

Here, when the deviant sound was expected, the brain made a prediction that was consistent with their internal model of the world: The inferior colliculus and medial geniculate body didn't need to respond. When the deviant sound was unexpected, the brain noticed the deviance and had to take time to make the correct prediction (that it was deviant) and respond (that it occurred in position 4 or 5).

This research shows that we hear what we expect to hear. In fact, Dr. Alejandro Tabas, the lead author of the study, believes that "all that we perceive might be deeply contaminated by our subjective beliefs on the physical world."

Hearing what we expect to hear isn't a weakness: It's how our brains work. To be good a communicator, we need to pay close attention to what our conversation partner is saying.


Tabas, A., Mihai, G., Kiebel, S., et al. (2020). Abstract rules drive adaptation in the subcortical sensory pathway. eLife 2020;9:e64501 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.64501

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