Title: You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters
Author: Kate Murphy
Penguin Random House UK
Review by: SOPHIE STONE
In You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters, New York Times contributor and professional listener Kate Murphy breaks down the secrets to better listening, drawing on her experience talking, and more importantly, listening, to a wide range of people, spanning from CIA agents to babies, priests to salesmen.
It’s a skill I’ve found we tend to hear a lot these days, with active listening often promoted as a crucial key to solving everything from relationship issues to business deals. We get it, listening’s important. With that being said, Murphy does make a valid point in suggesting that while there’s an abundance of courses teaching people how to talk better, faster, smarter, there’s still very few promising to teach people how to listen better.
And to be honest, why would there be? If you asked me if I wanted to go to a talk on learning how to listen better, I’d probably give it a miss. It’s the kind of thing I feel people perceive as only being beneficial for those with obvious listening issues, the kind who talk constantly and don’t let others get a word in edgeways. I definitely don’t identify with those people.
And maybe that’s the problem. Because yeah, I generally think of myself as a decent listener, but after reading the book I can already see a few areas where I’m failing. One of which is what Murphy breaks down as being present in conversations. Many people tend to be preoccupied with thoughts even while they converse with others. Sometimes when I talk to people, I’m guilty of often thinking about what I’m going to say next. This means that sometimes they’ll get to the end of their statement and I realise I actually missed the latter half of what they were saying, leading to a kind of awkward moment where I just nod or ask a question that they hopefully haven’t just covered the answer to.
Another area I’d probably fail on is what Murphy describes as closeness-communication bias, a phenomenon where we tend to overestimate our ability to read the people who are closest to us. We assume we know them better than they do, and so don’t make the same amount of effort to listen to them as we would strangers. I know when it comes to my Mum, for example, that I often anticipate what her thoughts and reaction to certain topics will be, and this means I often react with less interest and curiosity in a conversation with her than a complete stranger.
Learning about my blindspots through reading You’re Not Listening has served as a pretty effective lesson about how people tend to overestimate listening ability. As Murphy points out, it’s not enough to simply pretend to listen, to nod every so often and say “uh huh”, as most people can see through that in a heartbeat. Active listening requires curiosity and engagement. It’s about taking the time to ensure someone knows their thoughts are valued, not just vaguely acknowledged.
Murphy also outlines the increased need for listening skills today. For young people especially, growing up among digital devices and increased connectivity has altered the way we interact. At the same time, loneliness rates are at an all time high. Ironically enough, more and more people report feeling disconnected from others despite increased perceived social connectivity. In a time when fewer and fewer people feel like they have people to talk to, to divulge secrets to and have them be shared back, being a good listener may actually help to save lives.
The benefit of the author being a successful journalist means that she also understands how to write for her audience. It’s an informative but accessible guide, and while she touches on the psychology behind certain phenomenon, and at one point the actual mechanics responsible for hearing, it’s never hard to understand or patronising. She uses a range of metaphors to get her points across in a way that lingers in the brain long after you’ve read it, which is pretty crucial given it’s a self-help book.
The books accessible nature and topic means I’d pretty much recommend it to anyone who’s got a few hours to kill, particularly if they’re the kind of person who enjoys watching TED Talks. That, or anyone I’ve noticed checking their watch when I’m telling them about the latest episode of Doctor Who.
Sophie is a geeky 19-year-old who loves Doctor Who and has been writing for TEARAWAY for two years. Currently trying to navigate her gap year, wishing she could pursue a degree in chicken nugget tasting.