In my communication skills workshops, we talk about the importance of active listening as an essential communication skill. And we do a simple exercise that shows how listening is different from hearing.

Listening means you are aware and paying attention to the speaker. You can learn more about how to listen in this previous blog I wrote.

Unfortunately, many people don’t know how to listen. For some, listening means just waiting impatiently for you to stop talking so they can tell you what’s really important.

That’s not listening. It’s just annoying.

Listening takes mindfulness. And it seems easy to separate the sounds we hear from the sights we see. But it’s not as easy as you might think.

Sometimes, our brain plays a funny trick on us.

We can be fooled into hearing what we think the speaker said, based on what we see. In fact, what you hear depends on whether your eyes are opened or closed. It’s a phenomenon called the McGurk Effect.

The illusion happens when the auditory component of one sound is paired with the visual component of another sound, leading to the perception of a third sound. The visual cue we get from seeing a person speak changes what we hear.

As with many wonderful things, it was discovered by accident when Harry McGurk and his assistant John MacDonald were conducting a study on how infants perceive language at different developmental stages. They asked a technician to dub a video with a different phoneme from the one spoken.

When the video was played back, both researchers heard a third phoneme rather than the one spoken or mouthed in the video.

Interestingly, this effect does not affect everyone. But most people do experience it. It even tricks researchers who conduct the experiment and know the speaker isn't saying the same word.

So, on your journey to becoming a better communicator, it’s useful to remember that what you hear may not be what the speaker said.

Perhaps the McGurk Effect gives us new insight about the old adage it’s not what you said, but how you said it.


"She's gonna listen to her heart
It's gonna tell her what to do"

— Tom Petty



Things we like.

See and hear the McGurk Effect here.



Things to ponder.

Get instruction for creating your own McGurk Effect demonstration here




  Read past blogs here                   Read future blogs here