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Key insights from

You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters

By Kate Murphy

What you’ll learn

Besides “I love you,” the phrases “Let me finish” and “You’re not listening to me” are among the most common in close relationships. But what are we overlooking when we are so determined to get a word in edgewise? Journalist Kate Murphy knows a thing or two about listening well. Every time she interviews someone for a story, she asks questions and then carefully attends to the response. She has witnessed what an open, attentive presence unlocks for others, as interviewees share far more than they intended to. It is a surprising and gratifying experience for both parties, and often these unexpected meanderings into unchartered conversational territory have inspired Murphy’s best storytelling. These experiences as a professional listener sent Murphy on a quest to understand what good listening is and the perks it brings. You’re Not Listening is an ode to better relationships, deeper understanding, and the reclamation of a vanishing art form.

Read on for key insights from You're Not Listening.

1. We are so conditioned to make sure our voices are heard that we have lost touch with the art of listening well.

In the 1920s, a group of famed writers and actors regularly gathered for a roundtable chat at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan. These were some of the sharpest wits of their day and they would joust and jest with such elegance that newspapers would record and print the lively exchanges. Their banter enthralled the nation and the legacy continues to shape our conception of humor.

What most people did not know, however, was that many of the regulars at the Algonquin were profoundly lonely and depressed. One writer attempted suicide three times. Another critic hated himself so intensely that just before dying of cardiac arrest, he revealed, “I never had anything to say.” Part of the problem was that no one in these discussions really listened. They waited patiently for a slight lull in the banter and injected their bit. They were listening for pauses, not to hear what others were saying. One depressed member later confessed that “there was no truth in anything they said.” A century later, this mindset of having a one-liner ready hasn’t really gone anywhere. Neither has our struggle to truly listen.

Signs of our struggles to listen are deeply embedded in our culture:

-Debate teams teach people to listen in order to rebut—not to reconsider their own position. We are as anxious to avoid being persuaded as we are to persuade others. -Culture emphasizes charisma, controlling the narrative, and guiding a conversation. “Be assertive and let your voice be heard,” is the common messaging. Delivering a TED Talk is much more of the cultural ideal than sitting in the audience and taking it in.

-Social media allows you to curate what you listen to and get rid of whatever you don’t want to hear.

-And then there’s the conditioning you might have heard from coaches and parents who were upset or intense when they insisted you “need to listen up.” For those who grew up associating listening with rules, castigation, and critique, listening can carry unpleasant associations.

-Politics is another domain in which genuine listening is an uncommon phenomenon. “Crosstalk” is one of the most pervasive words in congressional transcripts. It’s what stenographers write when everyone is talking and they don’t know what to type.

-TV and popular culture don’t exactly model good listening for us, either. Cable news is short on thoughtful, evenhanded discussions, and long on shouting matches with pundits trying to get the last word.

-Many of us would plead guilty to indulging daydreams of landing those show-stopping “mic drop” moments. Listening at its best promotes good conversation, but we often listen in a way that truncates it.

The cultural pattern of not listening well is pervasive. If you’re not a good listener, you might find some solace in the fact that you are in good company. It’s a lost art, but it’s an art that can be regained.

2. Listening connects us to life itself better than any other human endeavor.

We all know what it’s like to be in conversation with someone and realize the other person is not engaged with us at all. They may even be making great eye contact, nodding sympathetically, and giving the occasional token “hmmm.” But we can tell when the lights are dim behind the listeners’ eyes. We know intuitively when someone is just following social protocol. It comes across as condescending and insincere.

We're much better at identifying traits of bad listeners than good ones. We readily identify the absent-minded perfunctory responses, the nervous energy, looking around the room, the glancing at the phone, interrupting, or responding with vagaries. We’re all guilty of this from time to time, but being a better listener involves more than dropping bad habits.

Truly listening happens when we allow ourselves “to be moved physically, chemically, emotionally, and intellectually” by what someone is speaking to us. It is a skill that takes practice to become proficient at; it takes exposing yourself to a wide variety of people and dropping any ulterior motives and scaffolding that you’re tempted to use to guide the conversation in a certain direction, or at least to keep it in familiar territory. Dropping those supports is risky because we open ourselves to uncertainty and unchartered waters. We might hear things we don’t want to hear. But in the final analysis, we miss out on more when we stand back from people for fear of being hurt.

The benefits of listening are more than little perks. It would not be an exaggeration to say that listening may connect us to life better than anything else we do. The benefits are baked into our neurology. Even in the womb, babies can distinguish noise from human voices just a few months into pregnancy. What is more, the baby can distinguish angry voices from gentle, soothing voices. When someone is at death’s door, touch and hearing are the senses that stay with them till the very end.

At a biological level, listening links people. The sounds literally resonate in the bodies of both people. Brain scans reveal that true, active listening results in a process called “coupling,” in which the listener’s brain waves begin to mirror the speaker’s. It gives new meaning to the phrases “like-minded” and “getting on the same wavelength.” The more time you spend listening to each other, the more your minds will sync.

3. Assumptions are earplugs.

According to a leading authority on group couples therapy, you are more likely to listen closely to a stranger than to someone who is close to you. What’s that about? The short answer is that it is hard for people in long-term relationships to stay curious about one another. It takes effort and intentionality, and without it, people drift toward the presumption that they have figured the other person out. They don’t listen. They might start speaking for the other person or making decisions on behalf of the other person.

The assumption that we have someone close to us “figured out” is known as the “closeness-communication bias.” The bias was on full display in a revealing study in which people were no better at guessing the intent behind their spouse’s ambiguous phrasing than those of complete strangers. No matter how long you have known someone, you effectively cut yourself off from that person when you forget you are dealing with someone separate from you, someone who knows things you do not and has thoughts of which you are unaware.

There is a strange irony that the people we are closest to are the ones we pay the least attention to. Familiarity can lull us into presuming that we know all about someone, but our assumptions about who they have been in the past can keep us from rediscovering them in the present. It can keep our listening superficial, with us presuming that we’ve heard it all before and know what to expect from the other.

4. Good listeners resist the urge to follow mental rabbit trails mid-conversation.

High IQ and introversion are associated with good listening, but these qualities can be more a hindrance than a help to staying attuned to and tracking what someone else is saying. Introverts tend to be more sensitive and more quickly “topped off” as far as social interaction. High intelligence can get in the way of quality listening because thought moves much faster than words. People with agile, active minds can spin off in numerous directions while the speaker is on the second sentence of her story. Good listeners, however, resist the urge to take mental vacations mid-conversation. They dig deep to stay present.

This seems easy enough, but most people struggle mightily to stay present and really listen to what someone is saying without mentally checking out. A study of thousands of students and working professionals uncovered the widespread incapacity to retain what someone had said in brief exchanges. Even when the listeners believed they had listened carefully and thought they recalled everything, most couldn’t remember half of the conversation immediately after, and the majority could recall only a quarter of the conversation a few months later.

Listening is its own kind of meditation, but instead of focusing on the breath and returning to the breath whenever you’re distracted, you focus on the speaker and return to the speaker every time you take a mini mental vacation.

5. Your brain processes sharp disagreement the same way it does being chased by wild animals.

If you don’t think someone has anything to teach you, your negotiation is over before it starts. To listen well and to learn, you have to ask questions of the other person out of genuine curiosity—not to set yourself up to win a game of “gotcha.” For Gillian Todd’s Harvard Law School students, this is a tough mindset to adopt. If you’ve been accepted into Harvard Law, you’ve probably advanced by dominating in debates, by proving that you are incisive and persuasive.

Students have clearly expressed their fear that listening to the views of others will make them less secure in their own beliefs. What would happen if genuinely trying to understand someone’s point of view changed their own? Would they lose themselves and their most cherished values in the process?

Everyday life gives us clues that this is not a struggle exclusive to Harvard law students. People tune in to cable news and outlets proclaiming viewpoints that echo their own. People lash out or shut down when a relative brings up politics during the Thanksgiving meal.

Why is it that we seem to perceive a different view as life threatening?

The reason it feels like our lives are in danger is because that is exactly how the brain processes it. UCLA’s Brain and Creativity Institute ran fMRI scans on subjects with intractable political views and discovered that when the subjects’ opinions were challenged, the same portions of the brain light up as when someone is being chased by a bear. When you suddenly feel your only options are to fight, flee, or freeze, you probably won’t be able to attend well to what someone is telling you. This also helps us make sense of why students have said that speakers with differing opinions have made them feel “unsafe” or why 51 percent of students polled believe it’s acceptable to shout a speaker into silence and nearly a fifth condoned the use of violence to silence someone. They are opting for the “fight” option to escape a scenario that their brains are interpreting as “dangerous.”

At points in US history, it has been common for politicians of different parties to call one another friends. Former Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill and President Reagan, for example, would begin the day as fierce political rivals and end the day reuniting as friends. They were capable of letting their guards down and having drinks together. Just a few decades later, that seems unfathomable in our inhospitable political climate. When John McCain, a champion of bipartisanship, was at death’s door in 2018, his exhortation to members of the House and Senate was to return to the practice of bipartisan authorship of bills.

It’s not just anger that we feel in the face of opposition, but fear. A recent Pew Research survey found that nearly half of Republicans feared Democrats and slightly more than half of Democrats feared Republicans. Nonprofits and think tanks aimed at promoting and facilitating civility between factions have noticed significant upticks in requests to mediate disputes since 2016.

Sharp disagreement fires up the same part of the primal brain that says, “You’re not part of the tribe anymore, you are cast out and cut off.” It makes sense that with stakes so high, fear and anger would not be far away. It’s vital to learn the skill of internal deescalation when a view you disagree with makes you panicky. You might be tempted to lash out or shut down, to label someone crazy or stupid. Check your inner posture and honestly ask yourself whether your disposition is humble, tranquil, and open to something new, or whether you feel agitated and closed off. When you feel like there’s a bear chasing you even though you’re just talking to people at a party, ask a question about how they arrived at their beliefs—not to set yourself up for a delicious rebuttal, but to understand their world better. After all, we stop listening to other’s views when we are insecure about our own. People settled in who they are don’t get rattled by contrary opinions, they don’t dismiss people who hold different views as idiots without first discovering who they are, and they certainly don’t pillory them online.

6. Good listeners support what speakers are expressing instead of shifting the focus.

There are a few ways you can respond to someone initiating a topic of conversation. There are support responses and shift responses. Support responses are conversational inputs that the listener offers to amplify what the speaker is expressing. Shift responses cut the conversation short by changing the topic and the point of focus from speaker to listener. So if someone tells you excitedly that she just got a new puppy, you could say, “I’ve never owned a dog” (shift response) or you could say, “Oh, what kind?” or “How are you liking having a dog around?” (support response).   

According to a sociologist at Boston College, conversational narcissism is brimming with shift responses that subtly (or not-so-subtly) bring attention from the speaker to the listener. The purpose of a response is not to redirect attention from what someone has said but to illuminate the subject someone has brought up and discover more of what they think about it. The goal of listening is to see and understand the speaker—not to change or sway them.

The goal of support responses is keeping the emotional spirit of someone’s comment alive. Asking too many questions about the details can derail the emotional momentum that allows you to sync and stay connected. If you heard that two friends got in a fight at a restaurant, you ask them what happened and how they felt and are feeling now. These are the questions friends want you to ask them. What the feuding friends ordered or what they were wearing that day is much less important.

Leading questions in which we already presume the answer to whatever we are asking also get in the way of supporting the speaker. Be aware of the temptation to add “Wouldn’t you agree?” or “Don’t you think?” or “But isn’t it true that…” Phrases like these will keep you from supporting the speaker and from learning from them.

Support responses also avoid questions that are long-winded and subtly self-aggrandizing. If you are tempted to begin questions with references to the influential people you know, accomplishments you’re especially proud of, or how well traveled you are, start over.

If you want to support someone speaking to you, don’t tell them, “I know exactly how you feel,” try to understand the root of someone’s problem, and don’t dredge up an upbeat banality or tell someone, “That’s nothing compared to this one time when…” These techniques are all shift responses because they derail emotional momentum.

But maybe that is exactly what we want to do sometimes. It is hard to hold space for the speaker—especially when the speaker is going deep. The impulse to rely on shift responses may have less to do with a narcissistic bent and more to do with feeling uncomfortable with strong emotions. We can all relate to feeling like it would be easier or more socially expedient to change the subject or “fix” someone’s strong emotions with a platitude or distraction, rather than sitting with someone in distress. As much as we act rational and composed, there’s plenty of emotion swirling beneath our social posturing. This could be why some people feel uneasy about gaining a reputation as a good listener. If you support a speaker well and listen attentively, he or she might take it as an invitation to gush, and no one enjoys feeling like they’re drowning in an emotional deluge. That is one reason shifting from the speaker instead of supporting the speaker can be a tempting option.

But here again, we miss out when we don’t listen. The risk of being overwhelmed is smaller than the risk of missing out on the connection listening can bring. If we are worried about being overwhelmed by someone in the process, it might just be a matter of learning healthy boundaries.


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