Book Review: You’re Not Listening

My library copy. I started listening on my way back from Texas and finished it up today!

Listening is hard. And the irony wasn’t lost on me that I was trying to listen to journalist Kate Murphy’s 2020 book about listening, You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters while driving. Murphy also read the book herself, so that added to the auditory irony.

The reason listening is so hard is because we like to talk because we like to be the storytellers of our own narratives, because, obviously, our narrative matters the most because it has us as the protagonist, right?! That’s a lot of becausing, but you see what I’m saying, and I jest, but there really is something to the idea that we have a hard time putting aside our ego to talk in order to listen. Also, let’s be honest, our culture, as Murphy points out, puts a premium on learning how to talk, to speak publicly, to win debates, and to master the art of rhetoric. The proliferation and popularity of the TED Talk (which I enjoy them, too!) is centered (literally) around someone talking. As she said, it’s not as if there is a degree in how to listen, or a Toastmasters equivalent about how to listen. There is also the issue of our own mechanics — the way our brains work — that can make it difficult, or harder, to be a good listener. Finally, as Murphy argues, and which I think is a bit overwrought as I’ll explain later, our culture inundates us with so much technology and other noise pollution, along with valuing the rugged individual, that we’ve actively turned away from listening in favor of our own bubbles of noise and titillation rather than that of another human.

Overall, all of those, in one way or another, has contributed to our listening deficit, and Murphy posits that our cultural orientation away from listening is not only problematic for us individually in our own interpersonal relationships and the nourishing of our souls, but can have deleterious consequences for the culture and our politics writ large. The latter for sure; we’ve stopped listening to each other because we’ve stopped seeing each other as good faith actors moving through the world in the same way.

Murphy, a Houston, Texas-based journalist who has contributed to The New York Times, is adept at listening because that’s what the job requires. In fact, she learned, as I’ve learned in my own role as a journalist, that the smartest thing we can do when interviewing people is to shut up! To just let the other person talk. Whether that’s in a way of “hanging them by their own words” or less seriously, to let them tell their story. But the reason we are so inclined to fill those silence gaps is another feature Murphy discusses in the book: our fear of silence. Silence is scary and intimidating to us. Rather than it being a space for someone to gather their thoughts or think, we often interpret it as something to be overcome, lest we be seen as boring, uninteresting, or poor talkers.

She interviewed a wide range of people across the country for her book, from experts in neurology, sociology, psychology, to CIA agents and focus group moderators, to bartenders and barbers, and everyone in between, to try to understand why people aren’t listening.

One of the more interesting bits in the book is the primer on how we respond to someone. Murphy explains it as the “shift response” vs. the “support response.” A shift response entails all sorts of ways in which we reveal ourselves to not quite be good listeners and conversationalists: We “shift” the conversation to trying to “fix” the speaker’s problem, or we turn it back around to our own experience, or we change the subject completely. Or, instead of an open-ended question, we phrase a question with an agenda in mind to get someone to agree with our opinion. On the other hand, a support response are those open-ended questions that invite the speaker to elaborate on what they’re saying, to go deeper. Again, that’s another useful way of engaging someone in an interview to keep them talking.

Because think about your own experience. When you’re relaying something to another person, the ultimate goal is to be heard. To be validated in some way. Humans are not wired to be told how to feel, or how to think, or to want someone to automatically jump in with a solution. Sometimes we just want to talk, vent, blow off steam, whatever the case. Sometimes, we want to be able to tap into the well of our emotion without judgment, without scorn, and importantly, with an attentive listener.

Nothing is quite worse than trying to reveal a little bit of your soul to someone who you can tell isn’t quite paying full attention — a good chunk of the book deals with nonverbal communication and cues, which makes up a lot of the interplay between humans! Some are better at picking up on those than others, which tends to make the former good listeners — and the way in which that makes you want to shut down. At least, that’s how I often operate. The way I see it in those moments, I’ve had to sort of “gear myself up” to reveal myself, only to be rejected by inattentiveness? That’s a surefire way to get me to go quiet. But even in less serious moments, it’s off-putting!

Murphy speaks extensively about the ways in which smartphones and other technological devices, including cable news, intrudes on our abilities to have these real conversations. To some extent, I agree, because I’ve been in situations where I’m trying to talk to someone, and the phone is on the table. As Murphy says, even if the person isn’t on the phone, the act of it sitting there on the table can be distracting, much less if the person is reaching for it, looking at it, and using it. Then there becomes a feedback loop, Murphy said: The speaker will nosedive the conversation to something less important because they notice the person is withdrawing from the conversation, which only makes the person withdrawing from the conversation validated in withdrawing, and so, they withdraw more!

But, I do stop short of going as far as Murphy does on her technology thesis. My four concerns whenever I listen to a book that deals in sociology, psychology and a general outlook on our modern culture are:

  • I worry about people who are anti-technology. Not that I think Murphy is some Luddite, only that her argument stretches too far. People have been worrying about every single advent of new human technology since humans started creating technology to make our lives better. It is no different with the smartphone, or other technological devices, and I’m not convinced by any argument that tries to make it seem like the smartphone, other devices, or the internet overall, are particularly noteworthy for being negative on our health outcomes, our cultural outcomes, and our societal outcomes.
  • The aforementioned often implies something I think is absolutely not true: That there was some “before” time that was a golden period of insert X, in this case, communication. There wasn’t! If anything, you could argue precisely the opposite, that today is a golden age of communication in myriad ways because we have the bandwidth (see what I did there?) to actually talk about our communication, and lack thereof, and try to improve it rather than trying to survive day-to-day, or growing up in cultures that didn’t value feeling sharing at all because of patriarchal notions and such.
  • I’m always skeptical of self-reported surveys, some of which Murphy uses to try to bolster her thesis that technology is making us more unhappy. She points to self-reported surveys demonstrating current generations as being more unhappy than prior, pre-smartphone generations. I don’t buy it! Aside from the flaws in self-reporting, I wonder how much of it could be explained by past generations literally not having the language to explain unhappiness in the same way, or the liberated culture to do so, versus the culture we live in today that, some stigma still notwithstanding, we do have a better language for it, and that liberation to do so? In the 1980s, the concern was probably that the advent of 24/7 cable news was making Americans unhappy, or the 1990s and talk radio. Or the 1960s and our loosened mores, or the 1950s and the ubiquity of the television in American homes, or the 1920s and the 1930s with the radio, or heck, I saw a newspaper article recently from sometime in the 1920s that complained about how many people had their noses in the newspaper rather than communicating with each other! On and on it goes.
  • What is the alternative prescription? One French researcher, I believe, Murphy referenced railed against rugged individualism, and individual branding and self-promotion, and taken with the other pieces Murphy put forth about our reliance on devices, what is the proposed alternative I wonder? And well, I get concerned about what that alternative would look like.

Again, I’m just not swayed by what Murphy called our “device dependency” and it being tantamount to what happens in the brain with substance use dependency. I could be wrong, and I would happily take recommendations for studies to read! Likewise, I’m not convinced even by something that everyone seems to accept at face value: That our attention spans are worse now than ever, and as a result, we are terrible listeners because we nope out of conversations much quicker. The most popular movies in the world, on a regular basis, are superhero movies and Star Wars, which tend to be two and a half to three hour-long movies! That’s one example, but I don’t think our attention spans have gotten shorted; instead, I would posit that perhaps our selection of what we pay attention to has gotten, well, more selective? Because unlike ever before, we can be selective?

The neurological dive Murphy takes into the mechanics of listening, as well as that “inner voice” we have, was quite interesting. Murphy said, the way we talk to ourselves influences ourselves. And in point of fact, the way we listen influences how we hear others. So, a habituated Fox News viewer, for example, is going to hear the same story differently than a CNN viewer (now, granted, maybe the anchors are literally presenting it differently, but I still take her point; after all, we also view things differently, if debates over police shooting videos are any indication).

But, on the neurological front, our brains are such funny things. They try to be so helpful! And yet. For example, when we mechanically aren’t hearing someone, our brain tries valiantly to fill the gap by what we expect those gaps to be rather than what they are; thus, the resulting miscommunication between people.

That section on the mechanics of listening also allowed Murphy a chance to talk about the danger of hearing loss, and the ways in which so much of what we do from concerts to even sitting in a restaurant, can be damaging to our hearing. Point taken on that, for sure. I don’t think the public, including myself I must say, take seriously how dangerous various activities can be to our hearing. If the COVID-19 pandemic normalizes more regular mask wearing, maybe we can get to a point of normalizing ear plug-wearing, as Murphy suggests to mitigate our hearing loss. And because of the way our brains work, Murphy explains that hearing loss is one of those things we don’t realize we are experiencing until it’s more severe.

As mentioned, Murphy does talk a lot about the nonverbal cues as well, which requires a visual element to help us get the full context for the tone we are hearing. Which led me to another area that I wholly relate to: Sometimes that visual element can be so intense, we do things to lessen the visual intensity before engaging someone in a discussion, such as how couples will do pillow talk in a darkened room where the visual part is virtually eliminated. I do that! Or did do that when I had a girlfriend. I guess because of that visual intensity and wanting to “have control” over the environment in which to launch into a more serious discussion, I would often wait to have such discussions when pillow talk time came. I loved that time for loosening me up, but it was also a negative in the sense of waiting to express my feelings.

Another area of sociology I’m skeptical of — and don’t get me wrong, I love the field of sociology, and I find it quite interesting! — is the study Murphy references about the family dinner project, wherein researchers measured a variety of improved health outcomes from families having dinner conversation around the table rather than going off in different directions and/or having devices intrude. Again, I’d love to dig more into those studies, but I get skeptical! There seems far too many variables involved to be able to draw a causal link (and not just a correlation!) between families eating dinner together and talking to one another and a dozen improved health outcomes. Still, as a general matter, it obviously would seem like a surface-level good thing to have those dinner table conversations! If they are valuable conversations, of course.

Circling back around to where I started with this review, like most things, to be a good listener, one needs to set aside their ego. The ego is going to want to interject (to finish someone’s thought, for example, which I will admit to being bad at!), or shift the conversation back to ourselves, or to zone out, but we have to put the ego aside in order to be a good listener. We have to be present.

Toward the end of the book, Murphy quotes Henry David Thoreau as saying, “The greatest compliment ever paid me was when somebody asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”

I can’t disagree with Mr. Thoreau at all. That feeling is wonderful, and the opposite is also true: I love being able to attend for others! I try to be a good listener, and I don’t always succeed, but when you know you’re vibing with someone, that they are being a good listener, and you are being a good listener, and you’re going somewhere deep with the conversation? That’s the height of human interaction, as far as I am concerned. But it does feel few and far between to either get someone else who is attentive and/or to get someone willing and ready to go beyond the superficial.

Because really, listening is not only about setting aside the ego, but about embracing vulnerability — the vulnerability of the other person and your own vulnerability in accepting theirs — and if there is anything our culture is afraid of, it is vulnerability.

As you can tell, Murphy’s books made me think a lot, and spew quite a few words! Sure, I disagreed with some of it, but that’s okay! Making me think is important. Challenging me in in an interesting and engaging way is valuable. I appreciated Murphy’s book for doing that, as well as being interesting in its own right.

We should value listening more. We should develop it more with practice, as she argued. And we should have better conversations for the enrichment of our souls.

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