What's The Streaming Channel In Your Head? Part 1.

By Karen Carnahan & Marsia Gunter

 14714778 - illustration of loudspeaker with arrow and dirt

 “The problem with listening, of course, is that we don't. There's too much noise going on in our heads, so we never hear anything. The inner conversation simply never stops. It can be our voice or whatever voices we want to supply, but it's a constant racket. In the same way we don't see, and in the same way we don't feel, we don't touch, we don't taste.”

– Phillip Glass

Ever feel like there’s a little too much going on in your head at any one moment? Or conversely, do you feel like what’s going on in your head stays pretty much the same from day to day? How about this—are you even aware of what you are telling yourself on a day by day basis?

And in a day in the life of your business, what people are saying to you and how you are actually hearing it don’t always match. And sometimes what you are telling yourself is much louder than what anyone else could ever tell you.

What do we mean by that? Well, let us start by telling a story about a close client of ours named Jim.

When Jim Wasn’t Really There

Jim, the owner of an electronic engineering firm, worked long hours, 14 and 15 hours per day, yet still didn't get things done that other people were counting on him to do. To find out what was going on, we observed closely his interactions with his key staff. We found that when he was in conversation with a staff member, he would certainly act as if he was listening. He did all the appropriate things - he would nod his head, ask questions, and agree to do something. Yet later, when asked directly about the interaction, he would have no remembrance of the conversation or of the promise he had made. Where had his head been? What had he been listening to instead of the conversation in which he was supposedly participating?

When We Can’t Dance To The Music Because We’re Listening to a Different Song

Surely, something was going on here, so we had to get to the bottom of it.

To discover his habits of thought, we began to interrupt his mental processes by asking him time and again what exactly he was thinking about at that moment. From his responses, a pattern emerged. Sometime early on in most conversations he would get distracted by some technical aspect and go off in his head and design a solution, while at the same time making all the appropriate motions of listening to the other person. He discovered that he could be gone from a conversation for seven to ten minutes and then have no idea what the other person had said. He was not listening to the person speaking to him; he was listening to himself.

Another way of putting it is this—Jim had a channel called “design a solution” streaming in his head 24 hours a day. It’s an engaging channel, so interesting that he literally couldn’t hear people desperately trying to communicate with him.

Where Are We Focusing Our Attention?

Research suggests we think at the rate of approximately 1300 words per minute and we speak about 300 words per minute. Where is most of our attention usually focused -- on the person who is speaking to us or on the 1300 words going on in our head? Not surprisingly, it's our own heads that get the most attention.

That means our own personal streaming channel, some might call it a radio station, is always going to be the most powerful influence on us in the room. So what is this channel saying? And who’s directing this show?

Our Thoughts Are Running The Show

Often, our thoughts come in the form of opinions, judgments, interpretations, and assessments. We might catch ourselves thinking, "I wonder what she really wants" or "I'm not going to do this, this is a dumb idea." Opinions, assessments, interpretations, and judgments are useful. It's only when they become stuck and play over and over again in our heads that they are potentially dangerous. That’s when they become a consistent radio station or streaming channel.

If The Show Is Played Often Enough, It Becomes An Immutable Truth

One danger is that we can be so busy listening to our own private radio stations that we fail to listen to what others are saying to us. Another danger is that our opinions, assessments, judgments, and interpretations turn into immutable truths - thoughts about ourselves, others or a circumstance that becomes unchangeable. These immutable truths become like rocks around our necks, cement around our feet, super-glued to our brains. And, these thoughts influence all that we hear and say.

The More We Listen To It, The More it Has A Hold On Us

Recent research into the field of brain development and neuropsychology has taught us some more about this works on a cellular level inside our brains. One of our colleagues, Dr. Charlotte Tomaino, Ph.D., has written an excellent book on the subject called Awakening the Brain.

In a recent article, she wrote, “Anything you do repetitively will activate the neurons in your brain, which makes the action more likely to be repeated in the future. Neuroplasticity, the adaptability of the brain, is operating at all times. You can have neuroplasticity working for you if you target your outcome, or it can work against you if you allow yourself to just react.”

One analogy is that neurons in your brain are like little roads that make connections. The more well-traveled a road in your brain becomes, the more often your thoughts will want to take that road. Practice strengthens the connections and further paves the road.

That means that those private radio stations or streaming channels are habit forming on a cellular level if we listen to them more than once. Whether it’s a good or a bad habit depends on what we’re listening to.

Why it Matters

It matters in several ways. One aspect is what happened with Jim and his staff. When we listen to what's going on in our heads rather than to what someone is saying to us, communication breaks down, misunderstandings occur, and things don't get done.

Another aspect relates to the powerful way in which language creates the future. The voices which run through our heads are like lenses through which we see the world and act in the world. The internal voices we're really listening to (as opposed to the external voices we pretend to be listening to) will inevitably show up in our actions and will affect what happens in the external world. 

Our Internal Beliefs Become Immutable Truths

So if we're listening to an internal radio station (or streaming channel) that proclaims “The market has shrunk” or “This is going to be a tight year because the economy is bad”, that will overpower the effect of more useful statements we and others may make publicly. Or consider the following:

  • “I'm a doctor, I'm not a business owner. I don't even like business.”

  • “I didn't think it would be so hard.”

  • “I don't really understand the finances, I let my accountant take care of it.”

Nowhere are our own “immutable truths” more powerful than in our heads. We listen to the tunes our head plays, and we find evidence in the external world to validate them.

We Single People Out, Including Ourselves

Sometimes streaming channels that are running in our heads not only relate to general immutable truths about the way life is, but also to specific assumptions, often hardened into convictions, about individual people. Again, we listen to these internal beliefs and find evidence in the other person's actions to confirm what the channel is saying.

For example, if when you interact with a particular team member you run a tune that says, “He's not reliable” or “She's not up to this job”, you will always notice any “evidence” of that person's unreliability or inadequacy. But you'll probably miss anything that person says or does that contradicts the tune you're used to hearing in your head.

And then there are the tunes that thump out, “I'm right” or “My way is the only way”. When we're listening to these favorite tunes playing in our heads, it's pretty certain we're not really listening to whatever is being suggested by the person we're talking to! Conversely, what about the refrain that whines “No one listens to me”? With that filling our heads as we talk with someone, how effective do you suppose our side of the conversation is going to be?

Prickly Results

The problems that come from listening to our internal tunes or streaming channels instead of whatever external conversations we're dealing with apply not just in business but in all aspects of our lives. When Marsia was younger, the tune that would start to run when she interacted with her mother was, “She's criticizing me again.” Moreover, it seemed to her that the radio station her mother was listening to kept playing the refrain, “When will that kid ever get it together?” Needless to say, all this made for some prickly interactions.

Most of the ways we act and the things we do are based on us making up stories about the way the world is, or adopting other people's stories for our own use, and then behaving as if these are true.

Moment of Reflection

Move this out of theory and see how it works in your life. As a way to begin to explore your own private conversations and perhaps your own immutable truths, here is a simple exercise for you to do. In the box that follows there are eight lines with spaces on each side. On each line write down the name of a person that you communicate with. Fill in all the lines. At least two out of the eight should be people with whom communication is less than satisfactory.

Now take a few minutes and in the left-hand space next to each name on a line, write down your answer to this question: What do I say to myself when I listen to this person speak? If that is a bit broad, pick a recent interaction you had with this person and ask the question this way: During this interaction, what was I saying to myself when this person spoke? Tune into your radio station and listen to your tune, your private conversation.

After you've finished the left side, go to the right side. Now again beside each name, write down what radio station you think that person was playing in his or her head while listening to you.

Radio Diagram.jpg

What did you discover? What did you learn about yourself while doing it? Can you see how some of your private thoughts may be contributing to the communication or lack of communication? Identify any themes or patterns you may have found. Some we have heard are:

  • “I'm in control here.”

  • “I'm not enough.”

  • “There isn't enough. . . ”

  • “No one listens to me.”

  • “All I want is to make a contribution”

  • “Everyone thinks I'm inadequate.”

  • “I'm superior.”

  • “I’m right.”

  • “He/she doesn't like me.”

  • “Get to the point!”

These themes or patterns frequently run in our heads like the background elevator music. In our business, one of us has “I'm not enough” as an ongoing radio station and the other has “I'm in control here.” You can imagine where we can sometimes end up in our communication relationship.

Progress Report

So, what have we discovered so far?

  • We listen to ourselves more than we listen to anyone else.

  • We're most often tuned into our own radio stations in our heads.

  • We frequently treat our opinions, assessments, thoughts, and judgments as if they are solid as a rock, unchangeable.

  • We make up “stuff” about each other and look for evidence to prove it.

  • Everybody does this.

So What Can We Do?

Pay attention. Be awake to the channel playing in your head. Be aware of who you are listening to. Is it your channel or what the other person is saying? For communication to work, it's essential to reserve or suspend judgments, opinions, evaluations, and really be present with the speaker. That means turning your radio stations down for the length of the conversation.

And, don't automatically believe the tune you’re playing. When you believe someone is thinking something about you or the situation, or hears you in a certain way, check it out. Ask them, “I think you might be angry with me - is that accurate, or am I making it up?” “I think you have this impression of me, or I think you see the situation this way - is this accurate, or am I making it up?” Notice, “Am I making it up?” is the key here. We make stuff up.

In part 2 of this blog we’ll discuss practical ways you can consciously switch stations and take control by replacing stations that no longer serve you.

Are you further interested in being in mastery of your personal communication and embracing the future for yourself, your company or your organization? Explore the future you want to create through ongoing coaching to develop business growth strategies, professional leadership development and business ownership, and transitioning your business for the next generation. We believe in the future you envision, and stand with you to help achieve it. 

Gary Gunter