Epilogue to Empathy: You’re Not Listening

            I’ve posted recently on the strategic empathy workshop I attended under the auspices of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). A further personal connection with the subject of empathy occurred recently when I purchased a book called You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy. I’d seen some notices for the book, most recently a favorable review in the London TLS, and I found a copy at the Strand bookstore on Broadway in Manhattan.

            There are a couple of reasons why I added this book to a growing collection of “pending,” unread books. In fact, I pushed this book to the head of the line, ahead of various military and historical works, a couple of novels and a book on writing a novel. You’re Not Listening first caught my eye because, at least in my own family circle, I have the reputation of a terrible listener. I’ve had various excuses for this. When talking to my wife, I used to invoke the “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” clause: the idea that men use language to communicate information while women talk to cement relationships. This excuse got fairly threadbare, and it was always a bit of a dodge. I’ve also told people that if I’ve been reading it might take me several seconds (at least) to attend to whatever they are saying. This excuse has some legitimacy, except that I’m a poor listener even when I haven’t been reading! I’ve sometimes thought to myself that well, I’m such an intellectual fellow with a lot of things going on in my mind, pardon me if I’m not that interested in observations about the weather, etc. However, my inattentiveness has caused me to miss out on some important conversations, and I have the exasperating habit of asking about something that I was told just minutes before.

            All of his adds up to the conclusion that I need help with listening. Another reason I broke down and bought the book was my participation in the empathy workshop. Listening is obviously a requirement for the practice of empathy. Reading may be practice for empathy. Reading may open us up to empathy with a certain group, for example, but for empathy with a live, present person, listening is most often needed.  The word “empathy” has several citations in the index of You’re Not Listening, and as a concept it comes up often under different names. Murphy interviews many people in the book, most with professional expertise in listening, whether in foreign affairs, politics, sales, hiring, polling, or focus groups (which appear to be an endangered species thanks in part to big data, a regrettable loss to Murphy and her experts).   

            Finally, the easing of the pandemic and of the restrictions on gatherings it necessitated is seeing us all get out and among others more than we have in months. I don’t think I realized how hungry I was for ordinary socializing and casual human contact until I began to tentatively renew these practices. I suspect many must feel this way. We are all a bit out of practice, but I think we also find that we may want more than a return to the sometimes perfunctory and uninvolved conversations of the pre-pandemic world. We’ve had a reminder of how precious is contact with others, that it is not to be taken for granted, that time is short, maybe shorter than we think. We have a lot of catching up to do.

            I’m about halfway through You’re Not Listening. When I’m done, I plan to post again on some of the key points in the book and maybe raise some issues for further discussion. I think it would make a good book club, workplace, family or community book.    

Next: More on You’re Not Listening    

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