How We Experience Conversation

Ever wondered why the sound of your own voice feels akin to nails on a chalkboard? Science has the answers.

When other people talk, sound waves travel through the air and vibrate on our eardrums. The cochlear then transforms the sound into electrical signals for the auditory cortex in your brain to interpret.

When we talk, we experience sound differently. Rather than travelling through the air, we hear our own voices through our bone. Bone is more dense than air, so our voice ends up sounding different to us than it does to others. That’s why you hear things slightly differently with your mouth open versus closed. Go on, try it.

On top of this, your brain protects your ears from becoming overwhelmed by the volume of your own voice. When you speak, the auditory cortex becomes less active, so although you hear your own voice on one level, you aren’t really aware of what you’re saying.

This is why reflection in coaching and therapy is so effective. In normal conversation, we don’t fully process our own words, and it’s only when we hear them repeated back to us that we understand the meaning.

This causes issues in our communication. We go into conversations without knowing how we feel at a deeper level and come out frustrated and unheard. We feel the other person doesn’t understand us, when we don’t understand ourselves.

As if things weren’t complicated enough, we also fail to interpret the speech of others in the way they intend. We might hear them clearly, but the words must be processed by our auditory cortex to determine meaning.

As children, we develop language by learning words and then positioning the meaning in the context of our experience.

In a study by Boroditsky and Gaby (2010), participants were invited to arrange a set of pictures showing a person at different ages. Americans arranged the cards from left to right in relation to their body. Aboriginals from the Pormpuraaw tribe arranged the pictures in a curve, in relation to the rising and setting of the sun. They consistently arranged the cards east to west, even when positioned in different directions in the room.

This study shows how we understand language, in this case the concept of time, in the context of our culture.

As a result, conversation ends up riddled with cognitive bias. Cognitive bias occurs when the brain tries to simplify information processing by using rules of thumb. When the rules turn out not to be universal, we get flawed conclusions.

For example, if a friend tells you they are finding their new job challenging, this could be positive or negative. If you have a deep belief that people should constantly strive to better themselves, you might see this in a positive light. If you’ve previously been overworked in a job, you might understand it as negative.

This all happens very quickly. As we communicate, our brains trigger chemicals that make us feel good or bad, and we respond accordingly, translating our inner experience into words.

If one or more people in a conversation aren’t aware of their own feelings and biases, things can get messy very quickly. Unpicking what’s going on beneath the surface allows us to influence our neurochemistry in the moment. As a result, we’re better able to reduce conflict, get what we want, and better support our friends, family and colleagues.

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