Listening is the 21st century’s most important skill and yet it remains largely overlooked. While we have courses galore on good writing, effective speaking and even how to read well, but not very many on how to listen intently. It is even more alarming when one is bombarded with incessant noise and is at a loss to draw meaningful insights and make critical decisions. To add to this, research suggests that since 2000 our average attention span has fallen from twelve to eight seconds, making us worst than most animals.
You’re Not Listening, a 2020 book by Kate Murphy is a useful summary of the important research on the topic of listening and offers vital tips on how to be a more empathetic listener and observer. Kate’s book is one of Washington Post’s ’50 notable works of nonfiction in 2020’, is named the best audiobook of 2020 by Esquire UK, and is handpicked by Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Grant, Susan Cain, and Daniel Pink for the Next Big Idea Club.
Here’s an account of what’s informative about the book and a few quotes that are worth inventorying and revisiting.
Kate sets the ball rolling with the observation: “In modern life, we are encouraged to listen to our hearts, listen you our inner voices, and listen to our guts, but rarely are we encouraged to listen carefully and with intent to other people.” To listen as to be “moved physically, chemically, emotionally, and intellectually by another person’s narrative.” And by this definition, listening with intent is rare.
On the virtue of effective listening, Kate observes, “listening, more than any other activity, plugs you into life. Listening helps you understand yourself as much as those speaking to you.” Hearing is one of the first senses we develop at birth and, surprisingly, hearing is one of the last senses we lose before death. As it turns out, our ability to listen and connect with people as adults is shaped by how well our parents listened and connected with us as children.
The author draws from research on hearing and listening, her interviews, and first-hand insights gathered from observing movie makers, neurologists, Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, historians, CIA agents, improv artists, mental health workers, focus group experts, psychiatrists, radio hosts, and others who are involved in deep listening and offers tips on how to listen better. However, on the scant amount of literature on listening, Kate notes, “listening is the neglected stepchild of communication research, pushed aside by investigations into effective elocution, rhetoric, argumentation, persuasion, and propaganda.” (pp.37)
Kate notes that listening, above all, requires curiosity. It’s important to retain curiosity in any conversation, as she observes, “thinking you already know how a conversation will go down kills curiosity and subverts listening, as does anxiety about the interaction.” (pp.41–42)
Here’s a dated video of Ralph Nichols, one of the authorities on listening skills.
Often people in long-term relationships tend to lose their curiosity for each other, a phenomenon called closeness-communication bias. Intimacy and familiarity may make us overestimate our ability to read those closest to us. A good piece of advice is to not expect your partner to understand you always and completely.
It’s key to develop Active Listening, which the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers defines as “I hear the words, the thoughts, the feelings tones, the personal meaning, even the meaning that is below the conscious intent of the speaker.” (pp.63) Rogers further notes that listening to opposing viewpoints is the only way to grow as an individual. Good listeners have this negative capability, which is their ability to cope with contradictory ideas and gray areas.
Here’s the vintage Carl Rogers on empathetic listening.
It’s often seen that intelligent and smart people aren’t particularly good at listening. It could be attributed to the speech-thought differential, which refers to the fact that we can think a lot faster than someone can talk. It happens that when someone is talking we take mental side trips. To be a good listener is to not indulge in a mental side trip but to double down on the efforts to understand and intuit what someone is saying. Kate points out that it’s helpful to think of listening as similar to meditation.
It’s important to listen to the intent and to do it fully before it’s your turn to speak. As the author puts it, “the more you think about the right thing to say, the more you miss, and the more likely it is that you’ll say the wrong thing when it’s your turn.” (pp.74) Recognizing and resisting mental side trips is what frees you to inhabit someone else’s story. It’s also advisable to listen for evidence that you might be wrong rather than listening to poke holes in the other person’s argument.
Below is a very famous and useful TED Talk by anthropologist and negotiation expert William Ury on how to hone listening skills. It builds on some of the practices Rogers has shared. Especially on how it’s important to have the speaker have the spotlight and not you.
Listening not only helps us understand problems better but also to solve those more effectively. As Kate notes, “listening is the engine of ingenuity. It’s difficult to understand desires and detect problems, much less develop elegant solutions, without listening.” (pp.88)
In pursuit of problem-solving, we often resort to gathering as much data as possible and this may lead us away from an understanding of the real problem. Advocating qualitative techniques to understand problems better, the author notes, “information is only as useful as how it’s collected and interpreted. Algorithms are only as good as the scope and reliability of the data sets to which they are applied… at best, a quant can give you a broad brushstroke while a good qual can provide finer details” (pp.101). This is especially relevant in the realm of big data where researchers and decision-makers may tend to rely on swaths of data instead of striking a real conversation with those in flesh-and-blood.
Further, to be a good listener one needs to develop conversational sensitivity. It is to not only pay attention to spoken words but also have a knack for picking up hidden meanings and nuances in tone. It is linked to cognitive complexity, which is one’s ability to be open to a range of experiences and to be able to cope with contradictory views. This allows one to establish emotional resonance with the speaker and get more meaning out of any conversation. Interestingly, private or inner speeches, known as inner dialogue fosters and supports cognitive complexity by helping make associations and come up with new ideas. How you talk to yourself affects how you hear other people.
These aspects of one’s personality are linked to Emotional Intelligence, which Peter Salovey and John Mayer define as “the ability to monitor one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different emotions and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior.”
A very useful introduction to Emotional Intelligence and its components is offered by Harvard’s Daniel Goleman. Here he speaks of four components: self-awareness, self-management, empathy, and social skills. He also sheds light on gender and cultural difference on emotional intelligence.
In a social setting you may exhibit two types of responses when engaging in a conversation: support response, or shift response. According to the sociologist Charles Derber, support response encourages elaboration from the speaker to help the respondent gain greater understanding, whereas shift response directs attention away from the speaker and towards you. Shift responses are usually self-referential statements while support responses are more often other-directed questions. Such as “how did you get to this state?”, versus “last week I went through the same.” This may often lead to conversational narcissism.
Here’s a very useful TED Talk by Junial Treasure on how to listen better. It also sheds light on listening techniques such as RASA.
Often is completely okay to just listen and not offer your point of view, as Kate notes, “being aware of someone’s troubles does not mean you need to firm them. People usually aren’t looking for solutions from you anyway; they just want a sounding board.” (pp.144)
The human brain is hard-wired to listen beyond what’s said. In fact, we can reliably interpret the emotional aspect of a message even when the words are completely obscured. Interestingly, owing to lateralization of the brain our language comprehension is generally better and faster when heard in the right ear than left ear (for right-handed people). The left ear can pick up emotions far better than the right ear which is tuned to pick up the content of the conversation.
Listening is as much as a visual as an aural enterprise. For instance, lipreading is as much as 20% of our comprehension in any conversation. Our facial expressions respond to the content and emotions of our speech through a process called grammaticalization of facial expressions. As much as 38% of someone’s feelings and attitudes are converted by the tone of voice. It’s important to, however, tolerate silence when necessary and avoid the temptation to fill in every pause with speech.
Also, in the book Kate invokes Paul Grice’s maxims of effective conversation, as follows.
- Maxim of Quality: we expect the truth
- Maxim of Quantity: we expect to get information we don’t already know and not so much that we feel overwhelmed
- Maxim of Relation: we expect relevance and logical flow
- Maxim of Manner: we expect the speaker to be reasonably brief, orderly, and unambiguous.
Watch out in your next conversation if you are meeting these attributes.
Listening, concludes Kate, “is not just something you should do when someone else is talking, it’s also what you should do while you are talking.” (pp.206)
In summary, to be a good listener learn to:
- Put the spotlight on the other person and not yourself (don’t shift but support)
- Don’t hold your body and face back (be expressive)
- Have conversational sensitivity and exhibit cognitive complexity to be comfortable with a myriad of topics and emotions
- Be open to being proven wrong while being curious at all times
- Accept pauses and silences in a conversation
Hope this piece was useful and for an in-depth conversation on listening, do read the book, it’s highly recommended.