Heather Hansen

Playing With Blindfolds

When I give keynotes, and especially when I give workshops, I often whip out blindfolds and tell the group we’re going to play some games. They tend to look at each other nervously, silently thinking “I didn’t realize it was that kind of workshop.” It’s not–but the blindfold games can improve your relationships in more than a 50 Shades of Gray kind of way. Blindfolds can help you to see (and hear) the power of listening.

In work and at home, all of us want our feelings to be appreciated. But in order for our feelings to be appreciated, they have to be understood. The key to understanding just might be a blindfold. We tend to think that the best way to read emotions is by looking into another person’s eyes. We may be wrong. Eyes are described as the window to the soul, but ears may be the door, allowing you to walk right in.

Michael Kraus at Yale University School of Management did a study showing that our sense of hearing may be stronger than our sight when it comes to accurately detecting emotion. His experiments showed that participants were more accurate when hearing emotion in voice than they were when looking at faces, or when both looking at faces and hearing voices. While researchers aren’t sure the exact reason for this, there have a hypothesis. They believe when people are focused on listening, they’re tuning in to all of the nuances of tone and pitch because they are using just one sense. I believe another reason may be we are conditioned to hide the emotions on our faces. We know how to smile though we’re sad, and we can put a look of rapt attention on our face though our minds are a million miles away. It may be harder to fake your tone of voice, and easier to hear when the person you’re talking to is trying to fake it.

In my workshops, we play games with blindfolds for the participants to see the power of listening in action. Having done this scores of times, I’ve found a few things are consistently clear.

1-We all have the capacity to hear emotion in others’ voices.
The majority of people who do the exercises are able to discern emotion from tone of voice, and able to do so relatively easily. This shows that we’re far better listeners than we may think we are, and that if we tap into that power it could change all of our relationships for the better. One important caveat is that we have to eliminate distraction. If you’re on the phone but typing out emails as well, you aren’t really listening.

2-Some of us are better at it than others.
Much of the work I do is with call center representatives. They’re exceptional at the blindfold exercises. Not only do they consistently do better than CEOs, lawyers, and even doctors, but they’re also shocked that this is even a thing. In their experience, everyone can discern sadness, frustration and joy through tone of voice. They have honed such phenomenal listening skills that they can’t imagine that others don’t have that skill. (In this way, they have the Curse of Knowledge, which we talked about here).

3-Practice makes perfect.
The skill these call center representatives have mastered is the result of the time they spend listening. This may mean we can all get better at reading emotion in tone and pitch with practice. One study showed that parents who have taken music lessons are more accurate at detecting greater distress in babies’ cries. Time spent listening to pitch and tone seems to make us better at listening to pitch and tone. So if you want to be a better listener, it may be worthwhile to put down the FaceTime and try the old fashioned telephone instead.

Or, you can try playing with blindfolds. The impact on your relationships may be even better than you’d imagine.

Heather Hansen

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