Why good listening matters: Tips from spies, bartenders, and priests

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Listening is more than just hearing what people say. It involves paying attention to how they say it, what they do while they are saying it, what context they’re in, and how their messages resonates within you. In her new book, “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters,” journalist Kate Murphy analyzes the research on listening. She interviews people who do a lot of listening: spies, priests, psychotherapists, bartenders, hairdressers, air-traffic controllers, and radio producers. 

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with Murphy about we all can and should become better listeners. 

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: You talk about something called closeness, communication bias. And I think anybody in a close relationship or with kids or a significant other have felt so deeply. Can you talk a little bit more about this and how you came across this in your research?

Kate Murphy: “In close relationships, after ‘I love you,’ the most common refrains are, ‘You're not listening,’ ‘That's not what I said.’ Those types of things. And that's because the closer you are to someone, as wonderful as intimacy and connection are, they also breed complacency. We get this idea of, ‘Oh, I know what you're going to say, I know you so well, I know you like the back of my hands.’ So people just shut off. 

They assume they know everything at a certain point. So they really don't need to listen, and they don't do it in an unkind way, or necessarily a conscious way. It's just that our brains are very good at developing patterns and switching off and going on to other things. But the key thing to remember is that each of us is evolving and changing every day. You are not the same person you were yesterday, and you won't be the same person tomorrow. As a result of the conversations you've had, the experiences every day, every bit of your life changes you. 

So if you stop listening to your intimate partners, or friends, or colleagues, at a certain point, you will lose touch with who they are, because they are constantly changing. If you aren't always listening, checking in, and finding out where they are, what's on their mind, then you will get to that point where, as often happens in relationships, people say, ‘You know, I don't know you anymore, or you don't know me.’ And it's really probably true if you do stop listening and paying attention to where the other person is.”

When did you first hear of this idea of communication bias? Had this been something that was studied in universities by sociologists or psychologists? What do we know about where this idea came from?

“It's actually well documented in the research. There have been several social science studies. But the ones in particular that I found fascinating were where they actually had couples come into laboratories. And they had them, in one particular experiment I'm thinking of, sit in a circle, but facing away from one another. And it was several couples. And they would ask the person to say something. It was usually a common phrase, but with their intonation, they assumed that their partner would understand them better than one of the strangers from the other couples. And it turned out that the intimate partner didn't do as well as the stranger, because they had all these assumptions. And we're thinking, ‘Oh, yeah, I know what she meant,’ instead of really listening and trying to figure it out.”

Why do you think we do this? What about our brains or the way that we're made up makes us put these assumptions out there that we don't need to listen closely? Is it a way to just compartmentalize? Is it laziness? 

“Our brains are wonderful things, but what they are, actually, is essentially our prediction mechanisms. We are wired to make predictions about everything. Because if we weren't predictive mechanisms, it'd be too much information, right? That's why people love routines, because they can put that on autopilot. And they can pay attention to something else. 

Our brains use an incredible amount of energy. And, as a result, we're always trying to conserve it. And that's what often happens in relationships. And there's also this comfort of feeling like, ‘I know you, and so you're not a threat’. And it's vulnerable to be in a relationship. And part of that problem is that it keeps us from really opening up to the other person. But also, once we do open up, we feel like, ‘Okay, I've made it.’ 

I liken it to when you take off in an airplane, there's sort of that critical phase of flight when you take off in an airplane. And you're so concerned with getting the airplane all structured, so you can get to long-term cruise. Once you get to cruising altitude, you don't have to worry about getting the gear up, getting your navigation put together. You're just in a more relaxed state. And so in relationships, we kind of do the same thing. 

And that's what's wonderful about relationships, is that you can be comfortable with that person … But at the same time, it does breed that complacency of, ‘I already know everything and I don't need to keep discovering you,’ where you actually do.”

You reference a Harvard sociologist, Mario Luis Small. In his research, he found that a number of people, even if they were in intimate relationships, or had people very close to them, would oftentimes confide some of their secrets or the most pressing material to strangers or people that didn't know them as well. That seemed like the more appropriate outlet for some of that material we keep so buried in us. Why was that?

“I think there are two things going on there. First is, in Mario's research, he found that the reason that they actually actively avoided telling their intimates this information, generally, was that they feared blowback, drama, or judgment. And a stranger is not going to do that. They don't have that long history. 

But also, I think it's really important to remember, and this is a lot of what I'm trying to get across in the book, is that you will tell people things depending on how you perceive them as a listener at that moment. And if, by happenstance, you encountered someone who seemed receptive, and wasn't going to judge you, you are going to tell them, because when you think about it, when something really bad or really good happens to you, what's your first inclination? To tell somebody, to share it. 

You'll tell your pet, you'll tell a potted plant if nobody else is around, right? So that's part of it. But it depends, because your pet seems like it's listening and it’s not going to jump in, particularly if it's a dog and it cocks its head in one direction. And you think, ‘This little thing is really taking in what I’m saying.’ 

But as I said, it's how you're perceiving that person as a listener at that moment. And so if you're projecting, when you're out in the world, ‘Don't tell me anything. I'm too busy. I don't have time for you,’ you're going to miss an awful lot. And that's really what life is all about, is connecting with others and learning from others and growing with others. And the only way you can do that is by listening to them, finding out what's on their mind.”

Do you think that, as a culture, we have become worse listeners?

“Oh, yes, I definitely do. That’s why I wrote the book. And it's not just as individuals. I really want it to get across that this book is not a finger wagging book. It's all of us. And it isn't because we're all blowhards. There are a lot of those. But we really are encouraged not to listen from really early on. 

If you think about when you're a little kid, when people say, ‘Listen to me,’ you're not gonna like what's coming next. It's also telling you to be submissive. Who wants that? And there's when your romantic partner says, ‘Listen, we need to talk,’ right? You're like, ‘Oh, God. What's coming next?’ So there's that. 

If you think about how we're taught about communication, we're always told talking is more important. You need to have your elevator pitch, you need to get your point across, you need to be eloquent. If you just look at how we're educated, there's debate. There's elocution. There's argumentation, propaganda. Those are courses. But are there any courses to teach listening? It is an absolute skill that we need to practice, and we have fewer and fewer opportunities. 

And then we can talk all day about how technology is degrading our ability to listen and taking away opportunities. I mean, anyone who's had a dinner with someone else, and they've been then sneaking glances at their phone all through dinner, I mean, how does that make you feel? And yet the same people who know how really soul crushing that makes them feel, and how they're less likely to really share anything in those circumstances, they do that as well. And so it's this vicious cycle. 

But also if you just think about our environments, modern life is very loud. People have televisions going on all the time. Restaurants are incredibly loud. We've got traffic noise, we've always got a hum in the background. Jets going overhead, helicopters, depending on where you live. And so there are all these pieces working together to keep us from listening. And as a result, we've gotten really bad at it.  

Just like if you haven't gone running in a long time and all of a sudden you're thrown in a circumstance of doing a 50 yard dash, or much less run a marathon, of having a really long in depth conversation with someone. Your muscles are sore, your muscles aren't prepared for that. You're not going to be good at it and you're going to quickly zone out.”

We recently did a long program on loneliness, and the researcher talked about how one big aspect of this is how individualistic we’ve become as a society. We're so focused on the "I" or on the content creator, the writer. The things that we tend to prize are these kind of individualistic, voice-centered pursuits. In all of this, where is the role of the listener, or the person that can sit quietly and take things in, when that's not a prized aspect of who we are anymore? 

“Well, it's not. But, as I argue in the book, when you're talking about who we prize — the writer, the content creator, maybe the really great orator — the people who are really talented, who are really good at that, are the people who know their audience, or who know their end user, if they're creating a product. And how do you get there? You have to listen to people, you have to know what they are lacking. You have to know what motivates them, what their beliefs are, how they form them. And that is how people are successful. 

Even the people that are the greatest speakers, the people who really are so inspiring, are the ones that have put in the time to know people's level of understanding, what gets people excited, what words to use. It's all in the listening. All of these things that we value now, it's front loaded with listening. And that's this quiet, hidden aspect that builds upon it, and how you are successful at really anything. You need to listen first, whether it's professionally, or personally, there's no other way to connect with others. 

As I said before, listening is a skill. It's a practice, and we can all get better at it. And one way I like to look at it is that the more you do it, the better you get. It just happens.”

This reminds me of trying to develop a mindfulness meditation practice. 

“It’s like meditation, but instead of focusing on your breath, or a mantra, you're acknowledging those distractions, but you're returning your focus back to the speaker, right? And you're using that excess brain capacity to notice all these other things that are truly fascinating. 

I'm sure you know this as a journalist when you are doing in-person interviews. Even when it's just vocally, you wonder, what's their pitch doing? When are they pausing? What are they not saying? What's the motivation for what they're saying? Do they have an ulterior motive? Are they gripping the table while they're talking to me, as if they're trying to hold something down? Does an eyebrow shoot up? Is there a slight little twitch in the corner of the eye? You pick up on so much. The pause. When are they silent? When are they not silent? Are they too ready with an answer? There are all these things that you can be using your brain power to notice. 

One of my favorite things, back when we were actually going to parties and being around people, is people's opening gambit. I find it fascinating. Because if you are talking to somebody, usually people are so nervous. Does this person like me? Do I look okay, do I have spinach in my teeth? ... We all know the person that within the first five seconds, they tell you that they went to Harvard, or somehow get across that they have a lot of money, or they're really religious, or have three kids. 

You really get a sense of people's values. What do they want you to know? What is their script? Because everybody has a script that they have polished, and they have used over and over. What's the story that they tell you? And it is fascinating if you allow yourself to get out of your own head and really inhabit somebody else's narrative. As a journalist, I know everyone is interesting, if you ask the right questions. And so it really is a matter of not only listening, but also helping your listening by asking questions, to get the other person to expand upon who they are, what they feel, and what they think.”

What are your thoughts on culturally what we can do about raising children with some of these values? 

“I think often people listen as they were listened to. And that happens a lot. It's been really interesting. I get several emails a day from readers who tell me about their listening lives, essentially. And a lot of them will tell me about how their approach to listening was shaped by dinner tables growing up, and whether they were put on the spot when they were asked to talk about something political, and how people argued, and whether people interrupted, and whether they felt attended to by a parent, or a parent seemed deaf to them. 

And it really shaped how they communicate, how they spoke to other people, but also how they listened to other people. So in terms of raising children, I think the best thing you can do is listen to them. Really encourage them, let them know that you are interested, that you are curious, because that comes right back to you. 

A child that hears from their parent, ‘Tell me more,’ is more inclined to say to the parent, ‘Well, what is your experience? You want to know my experience? Now I'm curious about yours.’ It's very reciprocal listening. Human beings are fundamentally reciprocal. We are more inclined to listen to those who have listened to us. But I also think that there is just an innate curiosity that is provoked when someone else shows curiosity in you. You know about me, what can I learn about you?”

Kate Murphy is author of You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters.” Photo by Karen Keith.



  • Kate Murphy - Journalist and author of “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters.”


Andrea Brody