A book called You’re Not Listening and a review of it? What’s the point of reading a book about listening? Isn’t that just something we do naturally? A noise is made, bounces off our ear drum, and springs into our head where our brain tells us what it is. How can you possibly make an entire, interesting, book about that?
And I’m with you on that initial response. I didn’t think I was going to like You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy.
I had recently finished reading a similarly themed book – though more of an instructional book than informational – and I thought my brain was pretty over the topic of communication for a bit.
What a surprise to find that Murphy’s book is stuffed full of interesting people, anecdotes, studies, and information about listening. It was a solid read.
Listening and hearing are two completely different, though connected, activities. Yes, hearing is the act of processing sound waves into a noise. Listening, or active listening as psychologist Carl Rogers termed the activity, is a full-attention activity.
As you might be able to guess our society is less and less suited to active listening. These skills have fallen by the wayside in preference for absorbing news clips that resemble shouting matches, listening to podcasts at double-speed (called podfasting), and choosing only the followers and books that we read based on who agrees with us.
Though it would be easy to toss technology in front of the proverbial bus on this one, it should still be pretty clear that we have a choice in how we spend our time and resources. We have a choice in how we engage with other people.
The summarized book review of You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy is at the end, but first I wanted to include some insights and interesting facts that I picked up from reading the book. Do any of these surprise you? Challenge you? How well do you think you listen?
5 Things I Learned
1. “Everybody is interesting if you ask the right questions.”
When Murphy reflected on her time as a journalist she writes that her biggest takeaway is that “everybody is interesting if you ask the right questions.” She follows this thought-line to its conclusion that if you find someone dull or uninteresting then the responsibility is on you to find the question that lights them up.
Here’s the rub though, you can only decipher better questions if you do the work up-front to hear what and how someone is speaking about a topic. And that distinction gets more into what “how to communicate” books get into.
2. “The average person talks around 120-150 words per minute…”
Since always and forever, or at least since I started teaching in various settings, my number one flub-a-dub is that I talk too fast. This isn’t due to nerves; I talk fast. It is one of the reasons why I suspect I’m better at communicating through writing. I can type as fast as I want and someone else can process at whatever speed they would like.
The only person who out-talks me is my youngest sister. She left a voicemail once (eons ago when people still used voicemail) that I listened to two or three times until I finally called her to report, “I have no idea what you said. I couldn’t understand any of it!”
So this little nugget of information stuck out to me: “The average person talks around 120-150 words per minute…” Not sure how to measure that but now I’m curious. Are you a fast-talker, a slow-talker, a “normal”-talker?
What do you think of that number, seem reasonable? Too high? Too low?
3. Introverts are NOT necessarily better listeners.
Perhaps one of my favorite points that Murphy made in You’re Not Listening teased out a common misconception about introverts and listening.
“Introverts, because they are quieter, are often thought to be better listeners. But this, too, is false. Listening can be particularly challenging for introverts because they have so much busyness going on in their own heads that it’s hard to make room for additional input. Listening can feel like an onslaught, making it difficult to continue listening, particularly when the speech-thought differential gives their minds occasion to drift.”
I can vouch for this from personal experience. When I’m talking with someone I have to intentionally focus on what is being said and shut down the part of my brain that wants to formulate a response, or ask a dozen questions, or sift through ten new ideas that just popped up because of what they said. Introverts are not better listeners because we are quieter. We’ve got a lot of noise in our heads that we have to fight against.
4. Do you shift respond or support respond?
In research conducted during the 1970’s, sociologist Charles Derber studied how people vie for attention in social situations, and he documented two common responses in conversations.
“More common was the shift response, which directs attention away from the speaker and toward the respondent. Less common…was the support response, which encourages elaboration from the speaker to help the respondent gain greater understanding.”
I’ve noticed this dynamic on many occasions in conversations but didn’t have the vocabulary to explain it. The shift response, when I give it or when I’m on the receiving end of it, shuts down conversation. It redirects the conversation to the person who is responding.
The support response affirms that the listener is interested and engaged in a conversation – asking these types of questions leads to better understanding of the speaker and a stronger connection throughout the give-and-take of a conversation.
Here are some examples from You’re Not Listening:
John: My dog got out last week, and it took three days to find him.
Mary (shift response): Our dog is always digging under the fence, so we can’t let him out unless he’s on a leash.
Mary (support response): Oh no. Where did you find him?
Sue: I watched a really good documentary about turtles last night.
Bob (shift response): I’m not that big on documentaries. I’m more of an action-film kind of guy.
Bob (support response): Turtles? How did you happen to see that? Are you into turtles?
Do you recognize yourself in any of these responses? How do you feel or respond when you receive a shift or a support response?
5. Is your attention span longer than a goldfish?
“Research conducted by Microsoft found that since the year 2000, the average attention span dropped from twelve to eight seconds. For context, a goldfish has an attention span of nine seconds, according to the report. While journalists, psychologists, and neuroscientists have since quibbled with how one measures attention (of a human or a goldfish) and whether it’s really a declining ability or simply more divided, advertisers and media companies are living with the reality that it’s harder than ever to capture people’s attention.”
How’s your attention span doing? Can you beat a goldfish? Regardless of how you feel about our ability to accurately measure the attention spans of goldfish, the reality of divided and diminishing focus persists.
In another place, Murphy provides evidence from comedians talking about how they have had to alter their presentations over the years as audiences become less receptive to long-developing punch lines.
Book Review of You’re Not Listening
I agree with the general gist of You’re Not Listening. I also agree that our general inability to listen well is costing us significant relational and communal growth. The Guardian wrote a book review of You’re Not Listening that emphasized this angle of the book.
The only place where I disagree with Murphy’s assessment is in her approval of gossip. While it may seem like harmful chatter, it often causes more problems and hurt relationships than it helps. What we listen to makes a difference as well as how well we listen.
I’ve read several books related to listening, and many of them are very good, but often they emphasize the “how-to” rather than delving into the “why.” For an overview of how listening is evolving and a look at why we should be concerned about it, You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy is a solid starting-point.
I included Murphy’s book on my list of 5 books for lifelong-learners because this skill so fundamentally alters how we learn and what we open ourselves up to learn. It also earned a spot because Murphy doesn’t attempt to offer a step-by-step plan for improving our listening. Instead, she takes a broad pass at the topic and focuses on the ways that listening impacts our lived experience – for better and worse. The reader is then left to consider what connections will change their habits and lifestyles.
Reading You’re Not Listening lets you learn about listening specifically while also considering a skill that will greatly enhance your learning generally.
How are your listening skills? What observations would you add based on your own personal conversations?