Becoming A Strong Listener

A book report on "You’re Not Listening" and confessions from an aspiring listener.

Apr 22, 2022
A couple of months ago, I put out a Tweet asking for book recommendations that had a meaningful impact on people’s lives. 
It came after remembering how impactful the book, Algorithms to Live By, was for me. 
That book taught me that there was no good reason to organize things that I use daily. 
As a result, I don’t fold my laundry. There are 39,613 unread emails in my inbox right now. None of them cause me stress. My pots, pans and Tupperware live in complete disarray in their respective cabinets and 99% of the time, I can find what I need in 10 seconds.
I wanted to read another book that might transform some other element of my life. 
I remember someone (but now can’t remember where or who) suggest Words Like Pistols by Sam Leith. At the same time, a friend, Andrea Wildt, the cofounder of Harlow, an app for freelancers suggested, You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy.
It wasn’t intentional, but somehow I started reading these two books at the same time: one on how to persuade and one on how to listen. 
I would have thought that the book on rhetoric was going to be my favorite, but it turns out the listening one struck a bigger chord. 
The book opens: 
“When was the last time you listened to someone? Really listened, without thinking about what you wanted to say next, glancing down at your phone, or jumping in to offer your opinion? And when was the last time someone really listened to you?”
My response:
“Oh shit. I don’t listen.”
I am a queen of productivity and efficiency. 
The other week I orchestrated takeout for a large group in 14 minutes from choosing a restaurant to placing 11 different orders. I can launch something in one month that would take most people three months. And I don’t get stressed until I’m juggling more than 15 projects at the same time. 
But the skills that drive me to get shit done, also mean that when you’re talking to me, I’m simultaneously (trying to) listen, planning the next steps for something in my head, and maybe even writing an email about some other project too. 
You might say, who cares, what’s the big deal? 
But it dawned on me that I am missing out on a lot and probably hurting relationships that matter to me. 

Without listening we are doomed to be lonely

In a 2018 survey of 20,000 Americans, almost half said they did not have meaningful in person social interactions on a daily basis. In 2020, another survey found that over 60% of young adults feel lonely. Loneliness was prevalent before the pandemic and it’s only gotten worse.
One of the culprits is often assumed to be the digital world: our phones and social media. Although this has not been proven, it resonates with me. I am happier and calmer when my phone is out of sight and I’m deep in conversation with someone. 
When Murphy explains what listening really is, it made me stop in my tracks. 
“Listening is not about teaching, shaping, critiquing, appraising, or showing how it should be done [...]. Listening is about the experience of being experienced.”
Let that settle for a moment: Listening is about the experience of being experienced. 
What we crave is to be heard. To be seen. 
In absence of being heard, we begin to feel inadequate and empty. 
It pains me to realize I have likely made people feel empty because my listening skills are piss poor. 
I am guilty of listening to someone, trying to quickly dissect their problem, and efficiently provide the solution. I quickly extrapolate where they are going and start problem solving for them in my head before they have even had a chance to say everything and… most importantly… felt heard. 
We’ve all been taught at some point about the importance of active listening. 
But Murphy calls out that this practice, as widely taught today, is mostly optics.
Active listening emphasizes how you should look and act in the face of a speaker. Allowing the person to complete their thought. Then jumping in with yours.
This is not actually listening. 

And yet, listening makes us more persuasive 

At one point, Murphy describes the research of Ralph Nichols, who was a professor of rhetoric at the University of Minnesota (my alma mater). Nichols realized that debate students were more persuasive when they listened well. Ironic, no? 
By well, he meant listening to understand if people’s messages are valid and trying to decipher their motivations for telling you whatever it is they are telling you. 
I particularly enjoyed Chapter 7 in the book, “Listening to Opposing Views”. 
The title is enough to make my heart race and anger levels spike… a sign that I may not be listening.  
It turns out that there is “an inverse relationship between amygdala activity and activity in areas of the brain involved in carefully listening”. The amygdala is what makes us run from a threat. It also blocks our ability to listen and think carefully.
My family has diverse political beliefs. There are many topics on which we don’t agree. But I have found that if I approach a conversation about a hot-button topic such as vaccination in the spirit of true curiosity, things go much better. 
Being a good listener requires being OK with contradictory ideas. This is called negative capability or cognitive complexity which is associated with creativity, better judgments and sounder decisions. 
Given how polarized our world is today, I wish everyone on the planet would read Chapter 7. 

Plus, listening makes us more interesting

At work, where I am a marketer, I’m constantly wondering how we (our marketing) can be more interesting. In most industries, there is a field of competitors out there, ripping off each other’s messaging, speaking more to each other than they do to their customers. 
On top of that, content has become the dominant currency of marketing. We’re all out there clamoring for your 7 seconds of digital attention in an endless ocean of content. 
I recently started interviewing customers monthly in a live event format. And I became acutely aware that no matter how much I prepared, the conversation would be boring if I couldn’t release my grip on my notes and allow myself to truly listen to the guest’s responses. 
In Chapter 12, “Supporting, Not Shifting, the Conversation”, Murphy explains how we can train ourselves to listen to bring forth clarity. She says:
“Good listeners are good questioners”
Since I read that, I’ve noticed how the people I admire most, ask the best questions. They don’t come from a place of showing you up.
They come from genuine curiosity, and as such, the conversations and stories that flow are much more interesting. 
Early on Murphy writes:
“Bad listeners are not necessarily bad people.”
Thank the gods. 
I’ve been actively working on my listening skills for the last two months. My partner has noticed a change so I’m confident I’m making progress. 
As recommended in the book, I’m treating listening as meditation. I focus on the other person, like you focus on your breath. If a thought bubbles up, I let it go. I try not to let my brain guess where the person is going. 
Murphy explains that if you don’t walk away from a conversation with answers to the following questions, you probably weren’t listening.
  • What did I just learn about that person?
  • What was most concerning to that person today?
  • How did that person feel about what we were talking about? 
I find it helpful to keep these questions top of mind. 
I’m far from perfect. At least several times per week, I have to admit to others that I wasn’t listening because I was doing something in the background or my thoughts were elsewhere. 
But I am determined to strengthen my listening skills as much as I am determined to strengthen my glutes
👂 Thank you for listening. I would be happy to listen to you. Please share your stories! Email replies come to me or write in the comments.
👋 All links to books go to my shop. If you purchase through one of these links, I get a small commission. Even if you don’t use one of my links, I suggest using because they support local bookshops!