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

Some time ago, I promised a more thorough post on this recent book by Kate Murphy. Other readings and writings, my family, social life and even my occasional role as activist have intervened, and I only recently finished the book. As the full title implies, Murphy is essentially making two, sometimes overlapping, arguments. First, that listening is a neglected and even a dying art, at least an art sorely beset. The book also gives examples of good and bad listening and sets down some guidelines for improved listening.

Some of the culprits in the decline in listening are fairly obvious. The cell phone comes in for some deserved blame. It is probably responsible for a decline in attention span from a reported average of 12 to 8 seconds since 2000. Not only does the cell phone distract us from in-person conversation, it offers the illusion of connection in the form of conversation that is often rushed and trivial. Phones and other electronic devices can also harm our hearing. Just 15 minutes of 100 decibel sound can cause permanent damage. It might be acknowledged that cell phones play a valuable part in the family, business, and social lives of many people. Talk on the cell phone may be better than none at all.

Some of the bad listening behaviors cited by Murphy include interrupting, responding vaguely or illogically, looking away from the speaker, and fidgeting. Murphy also cites the western (and perhaps specifically American) aversion to lapses in conversation. She points out that silence may in fact be very productive. One teacher has students stop talking for a full day as an exercise in listening to others and to one’s own thoughts. Maintaining curiosity is very important, and it may be a particular challenge in long-term relationships. Fear of hurt feelings may cause people to stop listening, as can boredom, or impatience. Murphy asks us to bear with the speaker if possible, recalling the times we may have grasped for words to describe a situation or express an idea. Some of us hesitate to ask for clarification, but it is often justified, and even well-received, since it is a sign of attention and interest. The best questions are often the most open-ended, rather than those which appear to be a disguise of a judgment or recommendation. Murphy lists some questions that are good at eliciting thoughtful responses and cementing relationships. What would constitute a perfect day? What was your favorite and least favorite part of the day you had? What three objects might you bring if traveling 100 or 200 years back in time?           

Other habits that Murphy commends as being conducive to good listening are wide reading, journaling, and paying attention to one’s inner voice, a voice perhaps inspired by a respected friend or teacher, a favorite author, fictional character or historical figure. The deficit in listening is especially detrimental because more work involves collaboration now than previously.

Perhaps the most important chapter in the book is “The Morality of Listening: Why Gossip is Good For You.” Beginning with some recollections of her highly sociable great-great aunt in Galveston, Murphy makes an argument for the importance of gossip and, more broadly, for the moral function of engaged, attentive conversation. Murphy cites a study claiming that only a very small percentage of gossip is “truly mean-spirited.” She says that “gossip contributes to our development as ethical, moral, members of society.” Gossip done well is an inquiry into standards of behavior. It can reveal as much about the speakers as the subject, perhaps at times to themselves. Murphy cites the philosopher Emanuel Levinas as saying that human interactions are the basis for ethics, and that listening gives our lives meaning and direction.

I’m almost finished reading a biography of Leonard Bernstein. One of the features of his sad decline in later years was his inability to listen or sense the impression he was making on others. Bernstein represents in larger-than-life form the egotism of our age. Americans especially tend to prize candor and outspokenness, but there are times to remain silent and let others do the talking, or to tolerate the silence that sometimes seems our greatest fear. Let me end this by expressing the hope, let us say the intention, that reading and writing about You’re Not Listening will make me a better listener.                


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