Listening is often seen as the humble counterpart of speech but is actually the stronger position in communication. You learn when you listen.
That’s one of the key arguments that Kate Murphy makes in her powerful book You’re not listening. What you’re missing and why it matters. Murphy sustains that, although listening is the foundation of communication, innovation, growth, and love, few of us really know how to do it properly, or where to even start.
And rightly so, living in the digital age, absorbed by the many narratives of social media, there is a lot of noise going on and not enough listening.
While you might take listening for granted, how well you listen, to whom, and under what circumstances determines who you are and the paths you take in life.
Introducing us to some of the best listeners out there – among which, a CIA agent, a focus group moderator, a bartender, a radio producer, and a top furniture salesman – Murphy sets out to explore the science behind listening, the things that get in its way and how to train the ear and the mind to stay focused on the valuable information that we oftentimes miss, getting lost in thought or rehearsing answers while the other is still speaking.
We read it, took notes, and organized them down below for you to easily navigate through.
Listening. What is it?
Listening has a lot to do with learning how to be better members of our societies.
It is the main driver of social learning and it helps us differentiate between what’s good and what’s bad.
Yes, all that gossip that entertains our family dinners is nothing else but examples of how shall one behave and act in society.
Put plain and simple, listening is all about curiosity.
It means being interested and hearing someone out with an open heart and mind. No presumptions. No evaluation.
We already know things about ourselves, yet we have no idea about the experiences of the people we talk to (and the lessons we can derive from them) until we keep quiet and listen.
The only certainty we get by not listening is that we will not learn anything new.
The illusion of understanding diminishes curiosity and motivation to listen. Without realizing it, we begin to listen selectively, to hear only what suits our preconceived ideas.
Happily, understanding – the end goal of listening – is not a binary concept (you have it or you don’t). It can always be improved. And to be able to do that, first get to know your blind spots and misconceptions.
Things that get in the way of listening
There are many things that distort and impair our listening, but most of them have to do with our wounded egos and buried insecurities.
It can be proved in one simple question: how many times did you forget the name of the person that just introduced themselves to you?
We are so concerned about the way we are perceived that we forget what people say in an instant.
We are afraid to say the wrong thing so we stop listening and think of an answer while the other person is still speaking.
Then, by the time we reach adulthood, we have pretty fixed visions of the world.
We identify with certain things and don’t allow our beliefs to be challenged.
We avoid this possibility at all costs, in fact, reading media that confirms and affirms our own viewpoints, locking ourselves in homogenous social bubbles, unwilling to listen to opposing ideas and hence challenge our opinion.
But here’s the thing: we only become secure in our convictions by allowing them to be challenged.
Next, there are the almighty presumptions. We assume that we already know what will be said, that we know better.
However, the most valuable and resourceful conversations that we can have are the ones that we enter with a deep sense of genuine curiosity.
In other words, we must cultivate the desire to understand the other’s opinion of the world, because (and you might have heard this a lot) no matter how close we are to a person, we can never know what’s going on in their mind.
Finally, we shape meaning in accordance to our history and perception, based on our background, gender, age, and mental state.
And so, being a good listener means being self-aware and knowing your vulnerabilities (what triggers you, your blind spots, what kind of things make you draw the wrong conclusion).
Through conscious self-awareness, one can recognize when fears, sensibilities, desires, and dreams divert the desire to listen well.
📝 INVITATION: Make a list of your conversational blind spots. Knowing that you have a sensitive spot can help you analyze more broadly what that person meant and investigate to make sure you understood it correctly.
Learning to listen
#1. Conversational sensitivity and active listening
Besides what people say, pay attention to the context of the conversation, how they say it and how it resonates with you. A lot of listening (understanding) happens through recognizing the non-verbal cues, which carry up to 55% of the emotional content of the message.
Likewise, up to 38% of feelings and attitudes are transmitted by voice, which means that for the information to be delivered properly a suitable listening environment is needed (a receptive physical space, as well as a receptive mental state).
You might have heard the term active listening already, used a lot nowadays and for good reasons. It refers to understanding the meaning of a message beyond the words used to express it.
Kate Murphy is using conversational sensitivity to describe the same ability to detect what is really going on in a conversation (hidden meanings, nuances of tone).
And finally, also related to detecting the emotional ques when we talk and being sensible in conversation, is our ability to read the room, meaning adapting the message to the level of understanding and the values and sensibilities of the other.
The end goal of our conversation is transmitting meaning, so we must do what’s needed for the other to comprehend it.
#2. Asking questions
Ask questions when you’re confused or when something does not make sense. Often times we assume that we’ll understand later, that people must have similar reasonings and motivations like ourselves, but they don’t.
Just remember to do it at the right time: ask the right questions at the end of your partner’s reply.
Important to note is that the are two types of questions, the support response versus the shift response (self-referential statements, conversational narcissism), where the first supports the argument of the speaker and the second diverts the attention.
There are different reasons for which people go for the second one, some of the most obvious being people’s desire to look well-informed (they ask questions that suggest they already know the answer) or their discomfort with the other’s display of emotions (they will try to solve or explain their partner’s problem).
What Murphy is stressing with great arguments in her book is that the solutions to people’s problems are already in them and we can only help them access the best way to approach things through listening.
#3. Keeping quiet
Giving the example of some rather unsuccessful business negotiations, Murphy emphasizes the importance of keeping quiet.
By giving the other party the time and the space to say what they have to say, you can learn a lot about their conditions and their willingness to compromise.
Listen long enough, until you see that the other person is ready to listen to you.
And normalize the breaks after listening, say „I’d like to think about that” and take your time. A conversation is not supposed to be a race.
Listening in the workplace
Jobs that predominantly involve mathematical and analytical logic are being slowly yet surely automated, while the ones that involve social interaction stay and rely heavily on listening, be it employee-to-client or management-to-employee.
Now more than ever, companies should create opportunities for their employees to share what’s on their minds in healthy and safe environments.
The most important role of a manager is to give the silent a voice.
(Jony Ive, Apple’s ex-director of design)
In order to show your receptivity and willingness to listen, choose to have conversations in quiet spaces (perhaps a closed office) and have your devices off and out of reach, so that no distractions intervene.
Be genuinely curious about the other’s thoughts and feelings: don’t listen only to gain something.
Be present, give the speaker the necessary time to put together their thoughts, and only speak when you see that the other person is done and open to receiving your opinion.
A hasty, misunderstanding answer will make the speaker edit their following conversations with you, knowing that they can’t be themselves around you.
Our stories are different and at the same time identical in terms of the underlying emotions.
Listening helps you see that we are all facing the same problems – we want to be loved, we are looking for a purpose, and we are afraid of death.
You learn that you are not alone.
By listening, you recognize and embrace the world outside of your mind, which helps you understand what is going on in your mind as well.