Veteran journalist Kate Murphy wants to help us rediscover the lost art of listening. She sat down with S&H to help us explore how to become better listeners.
Kate Murphy is a Houston, Texas–based journalist who has written for The New York Times, The Economist, Agence France-Presse, and Texas Monthly. Her book You’re Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters aims to help us rediscover the lost art of listening. Sharing insight she gained as a journalist over the years—as well as tips from experts like CIA interrogator Barry McManus, Fresh Air executive producer Danny Miller, and professor of interpersonal communication Graham Bodie—Murphy provides a sound strategy on how to become a better listener.
S&H: How has the research you’ve done for You’re Not Listening changed your approach to interviewing and to listening in general?
Kate Murphy: I can’t say it’s changed my approach but it’s certainly made me more aware of why I listen and interview the way I do and, perhaps, reinforced my better habits. As I write in the book, listening is a practiced skill and, as a journalist, I’ve gotten a lot of practice. Researching the book showed me that my instincts and intuition actually have a scientific basis and match other professional listeners’ experiences. There’s a reason people tell us things.
Out of everyone you interviewed for this book, whose insights did you find the most helpful, and why?
That’s like asking me which letter on my computer’s keyboard was most helpful while writing the book. I couldn’t have done it without all of them. Everyone I interviewed contributed greatly to the book, each in his or her own particular and profound way. A C.I.A. agent, for example, approaches listening differently than a focus group moderator or improvisational comedian. A priest’s approach is different from that of an air traffic controller or successful salesman. It was fascinating to learn all their strategies and recognize similarities and differences. Readers of the book will learn which approach works best for them, and under what circumstances.
What are some of the hardest aspects of listening for you personally? What principles from your book are the most difficult for you to put into practice, and why?
The hardest aspect of listening for me is knowing when to stop listening. I am always curious and interested in finding out why people think, feel, and behave the way they do. People are complicated, and fascinatingly so. But there are only so many hours in a day and you only have so much emotional and intellectual energy. You have to make choices about who gets your attention and for how long. Listening until you feel weary and depleted does not make you a good listener. Nor are you required to subject yourself to someone else’s narcissism or ideological browbeating. The best listeners know when they’ve heard enough.
But there are only so many hours in a day and you only have so much emotional and intellectual energy. You have to make choices about who gets your attention and for how long.
By exploring what it means to truly listen to someone, have you gained insight on how to capture the attention of someone who isn’t listening to you? If so, please share.
The best way I know to get someone to listen to you is to listen to them. This is partly because it’s human nature to return courtesies. But also, when you listen to someone, you learn their values and what motivates them. And with that knowledge, you can craft a message that will be more likely to capture their attention. Speakers—no matter how attractive, articulate, or polished—are only as effective as their ability to read the people they are speaking to. The guidance in my book will help readers develop that skill. Arguments typically fail not because of unsound reasoning, but rather a lack of resonance with the audience.
Have your learnings in this area made you better at resolving conflict? Would you feel more equipped to act as an intermediary between people who are being hostile to each other over a difference of opinion? If so, what are some of the tools you would use for that?
Research consistently shows that when people get to know their perceived adversaries on a personal level, it’s hard for them to hold on to their antipathy. That said, I wouldn’t so much act as an intermediary as interlocutor, encouraging antagonists to open up about themselves to one another. The more people listen and learn one another’s backstories, the more they see one another as fellow human beings and gain insight into why they think and feel the way they do.
Once you know someone loves their kids, has struggled with an illness, cannot resist chocolate, is trying to learn Italian, or has the largest yo-yo collection east of the Mississippi, you can’t reduce them to an opposing position or ideology. You might not agree with them but you gain understanding, which is essential to compromise, or, at the very least, peaceable coexistence.
Do you think kids who are growing up in this era of electronic communication will have a harder time with face-to-face communication than previous generations? If so, do you have some recommendations for parents who want to counterbalance that?
It’s well established that, in the aggregate, teenagers today are spending more time alone, preferring socialization mediated by their devices to face-to-face encounters. They are less likely to date, hang out with friends, get a driver’s license, or leave home without their parents. And even when they are with their peers, they are effectively alone, as their screens remain the focus of their attention.
I resist being prescriptive because every child and family situation is different, but it’s probably safe to say that modeling good listening behavior is a good idea. Engage with your kids, and engage with others in front of your kids, so they see what connection and quality conversation looks and sounds like. This means having device-free meals and asking the kinds of open, expanding, and nonjudgmental questions I discuss in the book. Just being together without devices isn’t going to help. Anyone who has suffered through a tense family meal knows this isn’t the case. Listening to each other is the key ingredient.
Read our book review for Murphy’s You’re Not Listening.