Book Review: You’re Not Listening

What You’re Missing and Why It Matters

reviewed by Damon Orion
You're Not Listening book cover

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We live in an era when it’s not unusual to see a group of friends at a restaurant engaging with their phones rather than with each other. One reason so many people opt for electronic stimulation over face-to-face interaction is a factor that The New York Times contributor Kate Murphy addresses in her book You’re Not Listening. Having people to talk to does not alleviate loneliness unless the people talking are truly hearing one another.

In the interest of helping us rediscover the lost art of listening, Murphy shares insights she has gained as an interviewer 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. Among these recommendations are to look for nonverbal cues and for the essence of what someone is really communicating, as well as to offer “support responses” that coax more information from the speaker rather than “shift responses” that change the direction of the conversation.

You’re Not Listening also discusses the science behind good communication and the lack thereof. For instance, staying open to the possibility that you are wrong has been shown to reduce activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that prompts us to react to perceived threats. Conversely, by way of an fMRI scanner, neuroscientists at UCLA’s Brain and Creativity Institute found that when research participants with firm political opinions had their beliefs challenged, their brain activity resembled that of someone being chased by a bear. Murphy shows how base impulses can create unnecessary conflict, as exemplified by a fistfight that broke out in Oklahoma City over the comparative merits of Star Trek and Star Wars. “In the moment, the primitive brain interprets a difference of opinion as being abandoned by the tribe, alone and unprotected, so outrage and fear take over,” she explains.

In the process of learning to be more receptive in conversation, readers of You’re Not Listening might gain some perspective on the evolutionary function of gossip and the changing nature of human relationships in an attention-based economy.

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