Misheard Lyrics and the Art of Authentic Engagement in a new Paradigm

This morning, listening to ABC Far North, I had an epiphany.  Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR) came on, singing “Looking out my back door”.  I mentally started singing the first line, when I realised, with a level of surprise, that John Fogarty “just got home from Illinois” not from “Eleanor” – which I had been singing since I was ten. During the scores of times I’ve heard (and sung) the song, in my mind, John had been at Eleanor’s, then arrived at his place, unlocked the front door, and started “looking out his back door – do, do, do.”

Misheard lyrics. The Oxford dictionary defines misheard lyrics, first labelled mondegreens by author Sylvia Wright in 1954, as “a misunderstood or misinterpreted word or phrase resulting from a mishearing of the lyrics of a song”. Sometimes, song lyrics aren’t simple to determine due to how they’re sung. An oronym is word-strings where the sounds can be logically divided multiple ways – therefore your mind wants to “fill in the blanks” for you.

Then there is the two-step process of hearing, involving auditory perception (sound), then meaning-making. Mondegreens occur when, somewhere between the sound and the meaning, communication breaks down. You hear the same acoustic information as everyone else, but your brain doesn’t interpret it the same way. Mondegreen’s therefore, although misheard, makes sense in your head, but is, in fact, entirely incorrect.

When communicating with individuals or a group or a community Steven R Covey’s advice of “seek first to understand” remains imperative.  Covey’s insistence that people want to know that “they’re cared for and appreciated” and won’t be influenced by your advice “unless you’re influenced by my uniqueness” emphasises the need for empathetic listening built around value-driven authentic engagement.

In 1994 Hugh Mackay told us “that people pay most attention to messages which are relevant to their own circumstances and point of view”.  He also said that listeners generally interpret messages in ways which make them feel comfortable and secure and that when people’s attitudes are attacked, they’re likely to defend those attitudes and, in the process to reinforce them.

You can therefore make a difference in creating a more constructive culture of engagement by being genuinely curious about how every person sees (and hears) the world and by respecting each person’s perspective as unique and essential to the project’s, or engagement process, success.

So many times, instead of CCR songs on the ABC, I hear interviews with individuals and organisational representatives bemoaning the fact there was “a lack of, or no, consultation”. This condition is driving the public scepticism around those “in authority”. The public are feeling uncared for and not listened to and there has been a general breakdown in the ability of “authority figures” to clearly articulate their case – as in the climate emergency situation – resulting in the dilution of the messages and lack of opportunity to cut through the external noise.  The messaging (sounds) are being lost to a population that’s interpreting the meaning of what they’re hearing in ways that make them feel more secure, despite evidence to the contrary of their beliefs. 

The opportunity (and challenge) for those engaging in this paradigm is to, as John F Kennedy said in 1961, “let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belabouring those problems which divide us”.  Therefore, as people cling to messages that make them feel more secure, we should remember the lesson from Doris Lessing who said, “This is what learning is.  You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way”.  Like misheard lyrics.


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