72 – Yanny or Laurel? A Lesson in Mindful Communication

In this episode, I will share an audio clip that’s gone viral where some people hear the word “yanny” and others hear the word “laurel”. I will also discuss 6 tips to help us be more mindful of how we communicate.

The original Yanny / Laurel audio was shared on Vox.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

Welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 72. I am your host Noah Rasheta. Today, I am talking about mindful communication. Before I jump into the topic of this podcast, I want to remind you of the Dalai Lama’s advice to not use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are. This has always been a key message that I try to reinforce throughout the podcast and in my general approach to teaching Buddhist concepts.

I want to introduce you to this idea of the topic for today, “Mindful communication.” About a year ago or so, I did a corporate mindfulness workshop. It was a two-day workshop for a company in Miami called, “Lightking.” They install LED lighting, billboards, LED billboards, digital signage for companies. When you’re driving and you see a digital sign that’s lit up, that’s what these guys do. I went down there and spent a couple days doing corporate mindfulness training workshop with all of the employees at that company. It’s an awesome company. If you’re ever looking for any kind of digital signs or digital billboards or anything along those lines, look them up, Lightking Outdoor I think is the name. They’re in Miami. Really good group of people.

Anyway, after that workshop, we’ve maintained a relationship and it’s developed into a once a month 30 to 45-minute mindfulness follow-up with all of the employees there. I had that call with them this morning, and the topic I’ve been preparing for this month’s call is mindful communication, specifically tips or tools to be more mindful with how we communicate in the workplace, with coworkers, with bosses, with customers, but also with loved ones, family.

I’ve had this topic on my mind for a while now. Then yesterday, I’ve discovered this internet phenomenon that’s going around with the sound of Yanny or Laurel. Those of you who don’t know, you’re missing out. So, there’s a, you may recall from a while back there was the audio clip, or no, an image of a dress. Some people could see the dress was like, I can’t remember the colors. It was pink and white, or it was black and gray, whatever those two combinations were. You have some people who see one, and other people see the other.

That’s been around for a while, and I always thought that was interesting. This is the equivalent of that with an audio clip. This one to me is fascinating, because it’s like you hit play, it’s a direct experience, whether I’m listening on my phone or on headphones, or the speaker in the house, it doesn’t matter. If you have a group of people there and they listen to it, some people will hear the audio clip saying the name, “Yanny.” Other people will hear it saying, “Laurel.” I am one of those who hears Laurel. There are some people who can hear both. There are some people who can’t hear either one of those names. They hear a different name like Larry or some just a whole different option.

What I find is fascinating is there doesn’t seem to be a formula that helps know which one you are. At first, I thought it might be age, but I’ve tried this around kids, and some kids hear one, some kids hear the other. It doesn’t seem to be influenced by age. It doesn’t seem to be influenced by gender. It just seems like some people hear one name and some people hear the other. I have this clip. I’ll play it for you and you’ll see what you hear.

Speaker 2:                    Yanny. Yanny. Yanny.

Noah Rasheta:              Okay, so that was the clip. Now, some of you probably heard “Yanny” or some variation of that. Others of you heard Laurel.

Speaker 2:                    Yanny. Yanny. Yanny. Yanny.

Noah Rasheta:              It’s very likely that whichever one you heard, or you may have heard both, or you may have heard something completely different, but whatever you heard, you’re probably thinking to yourself how on earth can somebody else hear … If you heard Laurel, you’re probably thinking, “How on earth can somebody else hear Yanny?” For me, I don’t even hear anything that remotely resembles a Y sound, the Ya. I don’t hear that at all, but I tried it this morning in my office with my coworkers. All five of them very clearly heard Yanny. Not a single one of them heard Laurel. In fact, they all thought I was joking or pretending to hear Laurel, because they were incredulous with, “No way that that sound clip is saying the word Laurel.”

I just find that fascinating. When I played this audio clip this morning on that conference call with the guys at Lightking when we were doing our mindful communication follow-up call for the month, every single one of them heard Laurel. Nobody heard Yanny. In fact, it was hard for me to try to convey the teaching that I wanted to tie to the audio clip, because nobody heard the other version. They could only hear what I hear, which is Laurel. I just think that’s fascinating.

I’ll tie that in a little bit more into the discussion, but I want to specifically talk about mindful communication. The whole point of practicing Buddhism, practicing mindfulness as a way of life is that ultimately we’re trying to live more mindfully. Now, what does that mean? For me, that means seeing things, hearing things in this case through that lens of impermanence and interdependence. That’s what mindfulness means for me. I’d love to discuss six different ways that I think we can practice being more mindful and how we communicate.

The first one is listening deeply. This is not just what someone is saying when they’re communicating to you, but trying to at least have a glimpse of understanding where that’s coming from, why are they saying what they’re saying? Where is that coming from? Why are they saying it? What are they hoping to accomplish with the communication that’s taking place? This is essentially listening beyond what’s being said. I think it’s helpful when we think about interdependence, right? We talk about interdependence as the understanding that all natural phenomenon has causes and conditions.

That’s to say this is because that is. So whatever this is, there’s a that. You try to understand what that is. If you get to that, that also has a that, right? It goes on and on. It’s like this incredibly complex web of causes and conditions. When I’m listening, I’m trying to understand that. What’s behind what’s being said? Rather than formulating an answer while someone’s talking to me, I may be trying to think, “I wonder where this is coming from. What are they trying to accomplish with this communication?” So trying to listen in layers.

What is the thing behind what’s being said? What’s behind that? Often you may find that it’s, if somebody’s talking to you using a harsh tone and you can detect, “Okay, there’s a lot of anger in what’s being said,” you could ask, “Where is that anger coming from?” Then if you can pinpoint that, where is that coming from? Why does that bother them? You may get a few layers back and realize, “Okay, I’m receiving communication here, and I’m understanding the complexity of these layers and that changes the way that I relate to the communication, to what’s being said.”

That’s the general idea of listening deeply, trying to hear what’s behind what’s being said. Often you can listen deeply not just with your ears but by looking at queues, right? Facial expressions, hand gestures, you can read behind or you can listen beyond what’s being said by observing with your eyes, by several different methods, not just hearing. That’s the first one, listening deeply.

The second one is being in the moment, being present to what’s being communicated. Now, in our society in this day and age, it’s very common for us to be distracted with our phones specifically. I’m sure all of you have experienced this at one point where somebody is, or you’re trying to communicate with someone and they’re just not there. They’re either on their phone. They’re reading an email while you’re talking to them or things of that nature. This is the gift of presence.

I think it’s probably one of the greatest things that we can give to someone is our undivided attention. Being there is focusing on here and now, and paying really close attention to what’s being said. Whatever you were doing, you can get back to it. You can take a 30, 45-second break from your phone while somebody is talking to you and just listen to them. I see this, this happens a lot I think with relationships. The people that we get close to, we’re used to hearing from them and sometimes I know I do this. My wife will be talking to me and I’m just like, “Ah-huh,” nodding my head, and really I’m not paying attention.

Often times, I’m actually even looking at my phone scrolling through social media or something while she’s telling me something. It’s really hard to pay attention to what someone’s really saying if you’re not paying attention as obvious as that sounds. If you start to look, you’ll notice how common this is. Just watch how people interact with each other. Watch how people interact when you’re talking to them and see if you can notice how often you do this to other people. That’s the second step. Try to be present. Put the phone down. Try to put the thoughts aside for a minute and just listen to what’s being said. Be present.

The first one is listening deeply. The second one is being in the moment. This third one I think is an important one. This is trying to understand, making an effort to understand. At the end of the day, communication is about trying to understand, it’s about trying to convey something, right? If you’re communicating with someone, there’s one goal. You’re trying to get either a message across or an idea, whatever it is, you’re trying to get that from your head to their head, and there has to be understanding for that to work.

I think our tendency is to think of communication as a one way street. I communicate to you, and it’s my responsibility as an effective communicator to get my message to you, but that’s not entirely true. Communication is a two-way street. I have a responsibility as the listener to try to understand what you’re saying to me. If I’m communicating or if you’re communicating with me, it’s not that your job is to talk to me and I just listen, it’s also my job to decipher what you’re saying, right? Communication happens two ways.

I don’t think that happens enough in our society, especially in marriages, in relationships where communication is a struggle. I think often times that’s why, because one person is trying to be the effective communicator while the other one doesn’t do anything to be an effective receiver of the communication. I like to think of this as what responsibility do I have as a listener when someone’s talking to me, when someone is communicating with me? That to me is a form of mindful communication on my part as the listener.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced this where somebody will tell you something, and you think you understood only to find out later that you’re not doing exactly what they said and they’re like, “I told you.” You’re like, “Yeah, I thought I understood.” I notice this a lot in my relationship, communication with my wife. The first four years of our marriage, we were not good communicators at all. We thought we were, because she would say something and I thought I knew what that meant, and same thing back. I would say things and I think she knows what I mean and she really didn’t.

A big part of this for me was my lack of understanding of the role that I have to play as the listener. I have a responsibility to understand what’s being said to me. One way you can test this, the tool here for this step would be to try to reiterate what’s being said to you. If someone’s communicating with you, you can say, “Okay, I believe what you’re trying to say is, and then regurgitate that info back.” You may be surprised at how often you’ll relay something back and I’ll be like, “No, that’s not what I meant.” I find this quite often like I said in my own marriage, where especially if it’s a sensitive thing. There’s a slight argument, or we’re trying to clarify something and she’ll express something to me and I’m thinking “I totally got this,” and then I’ll reiterate that back.

I’ll say, “Okay, so what I understand is why you’re upset is that I’m blah, blah, blah or doing this or that.” She’s like, “No, that’s not what it is.” I’m like, “Okay.” Well, that changes everything. I think this is something that is required on both parts. The one communicating and the one receiving the communication to feel a sense of responsibility to understand each other. That’s understanding.

The fourth one is non-judgment. For me, this means removing moral judgment from communication. In other words, it’s not about right or wrong like, “Was it right of you to criticize me, or was it wrong of me to respond to you the way that I did, because of the tone that you used or things of that nature.” Get right or wrong out of the picture. Think of it as skillful versus unskillful. Am I being skillful with how I communicate? Am I being unskillful with how I respond to the communication that I receive? That’s it. That’s the only game I’m trying to play. I’m not judging communication on a moral scale. I’m judging my ability to communicate or your ability to communicate with me on whether or not it’s skillful.

That changes the dynamic. The way that I communicate with my dad for example is different than how I communicate with my mom or with my twin brother. They all three have different communication styles. Now obviously, I feel like I understand my twin brother’s communication style the most, because it’s like almost exactly like mine. We get along very well. We can talk about anything, and the communication is never part of a breakdown there.

With my mom, it’s more compatible. With my dad, it’s a communication style that’s more foreign to me, and it’s taking me more time in my adult life to feel like I can understand and really tap into his communication style, and I can receive that more skillfully. Because like I said before, the role that I feel as the receiver of communication, I feel a sense of responsibility there. Where at one point in my life, I may have struggled hearing instructions or communication from my dad. It was partially his communication style, but it was also partially perhaps even more my listening style, my ability to take that communication and understand it.

That’s changed for us and it’s changed the dynamic of being able to communicate effectively with him, and to receive communication effectively with him. That is non-judgment. The fifth one is don’t make things personal. Don’t make it personal. I think we personalize things all the time. Interdependence and impermanence help us to remove ourselves from taking things personally, understand that it’s not about you, it’s about what’s trying to be accomplished through the communication.

Like I mentioned before with communication, there’s a goal, and the goal is the giving of the communication and the receiving of the communication. We personalize it by attaching the sense of identity to the conveying of the message and to the receiving of the message. That can be pretty problematic. An example of this would be like in the workplace, this was brought up this morning as an example. If I’m receiving communication from my superior like a boss, and my boss was to say something like, at the end of allocated, do you understand what I said? It’s very possible that I would say, “Yes, I did” even if I didn’t, because I have this sense of, “Well, I don’t want my boss to think that I didn’t get it. They’ll think I’m done if I didn’t get it or something along those lines.

What just happened in that thought process was I personalized the communication. The reception of the message was attached to this sense of my sense of identity, who I am rests upon whether or not I understood this message. So rather than asking for more clarification, which is what the logical solutions and not understanding the communication, because I personalized it, I may be saying, “Yeah, I get it” and really I didn’t. That’s just one example.

So, that’s making it about you and not about the message or not about the goal of the communication that’s taking place. Remove yourself from that equation and make it about the message. Then suddenly it’s easier to receive the message or even to give the message without skewing the message. Another example of this, if I were to have to communicate something to someone, for example let’s say my renter is late to pay their rent, and I’m thinking, “I want to be careful with how I word this to them, because I don’t want them to think I’m mean or something along those lines.” Boom, there I’ve done it again. I’ve personalized the communication, because the communication that needs to take place is very clear. The communication could be, “Hey, I need the rent, because I have to pay my bills,” and I’m not going to take that personally. I’m not being mean. That’s just what needs to be said.

You don’t need to take it personally, because it doesn’t mean anything against you, but the fact needs to be addressed. That’s the goal of the communication is to address the situation at hand without making this a personal thing. Anyway, those are two examples that I just thought of. I hope that that conveys that message a little bit.

Then there’s the sixth one, which is non-attachment. This goes hand in hand with not personalizing things. Non-attachment, we attach our sense of identity to everything including our communication. Non-attachment is recognizing, “I’m not what I say. You’re not what you say.” I’m going to disconnect the person from the idea or from the communication, because I understand that there is no permanent self that’s behind what’s being communicated.

An example of this would be understanding for example that you are who you are based on all these external circumstances that are constantly changing. One of which is hunger for example. I know I use this example a lot, but I think it’s so obvious. If the hungry you will communicate in a different way than the satisfied you, the you that’s not hungry, the satiated you, right? We’ve all experienced this. This is why there are little signs that say, “Don’t judge me for what I said when I was hungry,” or things along those lines, because it’s true.

If I wake up late, and I’m still really tired because I stayed up late, and I’m bogged that the alarm woke me up, and I was stuck in traffic the whole way to work, and I didn’t have breakfast. Then I arrived and now communication is to take place, well guess what? Whether I’m giving that or receiving that communication, it’s going to be different than had all those little things been different. I woke up rested, I had a wonderful breakfast. On my way to work, someone rolled down the window and said, “Hey, you dropped a $100 bill. It’s yours. Here.” All these little things that affect how you are at any given moment, all of those are how you are, none of them are who you are.

When you’re communicating, trying to be mindful in your communication, recognize that about you. Recognize it about the person communicating with you. If my boss is here and they’re saying these things and I’m thinking, “I wonder what affected this or where this is coming from. Is this a hungry them? A grumpy them? Is this a boss who had a bad email that they started the day with?” It could be all kinds of things. Maybe not even on that short of a time scale, it could be long-term, right? This person is how they are, because of where they were raised, or because of how they were raised. It could be long-term things too, but they’re still how they are and not who they are.

In that group that I was talking about with the corporate training, there’s someone from New York. The stereotype people from New York are rude. There may be some truth to that, that’s why you have stereotypes, but again you’re looking at, “Well, that’s not how they are. That’s not who they are, that’s just part of how they are. Why? Because, well, that’s where they grew up.” People who grew up like that, living in that specific part of the country may talk that way. Again, you can see that and recognize, that’s not the person, that’s other factors that make that person be how they are.

Those are the six tools. Listening deeply, being in the moment, trying to understand, recognizing that you have an active role as the listener, a sense of responsibility to try to understand what’s being said to you. Non-judgment, making this about skillful and unskillful communication, not good or bad, right or wrong. Not personalizing it, which I think goes hand in hand with the last one, non-attachment. Communicating in a style where I’m not attached to my communication.

Now, another way that that unfolds for me is I could communicate an idea to you for example. You may not like that idea. You may think that’s the dumbest idea in the world, but it’s just the idea. It’s not me, that’s the idea that you don’t like. That for me is very important to understand the idea that I may hold may not make sense to you, but it doesn’t have to do with me, it’s the idea. This is where it all circles back to this Yanny or Laurel thing.

I think it’s so fascinating to me that on a small scale with a sound, we can start to see this firsthand. This is direct experience that people perceive things very different. The thing itself is the same. The audio clip is the same audio clip, but you may hear Yanny and I may hear Laurel. You may not understand how on earth I’m hearing Laurel, and I don’t understand how on earth you’re hearing Yanny. There’s nothing that I can do to explain to you that’s going to get you to hear it the way that I hear it and backwards.

It’s just that’s how you hear it, that’s how I hear it. Now, extend that same understanding off to bigger things. Religious views, political views, opinions about education, how to raise your kids, you name it. Anywhere we go with this, we run into the same issue. What fascinates me with seeing this phenomenon unfolding on Facebook isn’t the fact that you heard something and I heard something else. That doesn’t necessarily surprise me. What’s been fascinating to me is seeing how adamant someone can be that you must be doing something to hear it wrong, because I am certain that this is the right way to hear it.

To the point where people are accusing others of, “You’re just pretending. You have to hear what I’m hearing, you’re just pretending you don’t hear that. You’re pretending you hear something else,” and it’s just fascinating to see that. How we interpret the multiple perspectives that are unfolding on this one sound, the sound of Yanny or the sound of Laurel. I hope that we can take that into that understanding into our overall communication. If I’m communicating an idea, a belief, an opinion or whatever it is, I can be more mindful with it. I think this understanding of the differences like of Yanny and Laurel can be really helpful for that.

I run into this all the time where people who view the world through a certain worldview, a religious worldview for example are truly baffled at how can I view the world from this other lens? People who view the world through a secular lens will do the same back. It’s like, “I don’t understand how on earth you could believe in a God and how you could believe these crazy things.” It’s the same thing like, “I can’t believe you hear Yanny and I can’t believe that you hear Laurel.” It’s the same thing. There are those lucky few who can hear both and they’re like, “Okay, I get it. I see both sides,” but then there are some people who can’t.

Now, with certain things I feel like I can see both sides with this specific Yanny thing, I can’t. I honestly cannot hear Yanny at all, anything even close to it. All I hear is a very clear distinct Laurel. It’s okay. I don’t have to hear yours to believe that that’s what you hear. If that’s what you hear, I believe you. If that’s what you say that you hear, I get it. That’s fine. Imagine extending that sense of non-attachment to communication. It’s like, “Well, it’s just what I hear. It doesn’t mean it’s right. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It’s just this is what is and for you, that is what is.”

Yeah, that’s what I wanted to convey with this podcast episode. Again, if you’re a regular podcast listener, you’re probably also interested in essential concepts of Buddhism, how they relate to your life, and my newest book, “No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners,” which actually came out to the public yesterday, May 15th. You’ll gain a fundamental understanding of Buddhism and how to apply the philosophy of it in your every day life. The book is written in easy to understand, question and answer format. It has four different parts about the Buddha, concepts, teachings, and practices. Yeah, you should give it a try if this is a topic that you’re interested in.

If you’ve enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating on iTunes. You can join our online community on secularbuddhism.com/community. If you want to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, you can visit secularbuddhism.com and click the donate button. That’s all I have for now. I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Thank you for listening and until next time.

About the Author
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister, and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He works with others to make the world a better place as he studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, integrating Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism, and humor. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids.