Book Review - You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters

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As a child, my parents encouraged me to pursue public speaking. Find my voice and be heard. The admission process for some of the B-schools involved group discussions. Most discussions I attended quickly turned into a match of who is the loudest. More often than not, I added to the din. 

In a culture where speaking well can get you places, is the art of listening going extinct? 

I picked up this intriguing book titled "You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters" by Kate Murphy. The book is a fascinating take on the importance of listening and how to get better at it. 

A few key themes from the book:

Why is listening so hard? 

  • Assumptions as earplugs: Thinking you already know how a conversation will go down kills curiosity and subverts listening. 
  • Speech-thought differential: The author discusses a critical phenomenon - talking like a tortoise, thinking like a hare. We think a lot faster than someone can talk. Hence when someone speaks, we are prone to mental side trips. The solution: listening, much like meditation, requires us to embrace the mental side trips and return the focus to listening.
  • Addicted to distractions: The average attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to 8 seconds, as per a Microsoft study conducted in 2000. The attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds. The itch to look at our smartphone while in the middle of a conversation refuses to go away.
  • Inability to handle cognitive complexity: The ability to listen to anyone has been replaced by the capacity to shut out everyone, particularly those who disagree with us.  Active listening is the most effective way to cope with contradictory ideas and grey areas. We only become secure in our convictions by allowing them to be challenged. 

How do we become better listeners?

  • Get curious: Quoting from the book, "The most valuable lesson I've learned as a journalist is that everybody is interesting if you ask the right questions". The author prods us to ask questions out of curiosity instead of questioning to prove a point, set a trap, change someone's mind, or make the other person look foolish. Good listeners are good at asking questions. 
  • Get comfortable with silence: Accept pauses and silences because filling them too soon, much less, preemptively, prevents the speaker from communicating what they were going to say.
  • Support not shift the conversation: Shifting the conversation from the speaker to yourself qualifies as a form of conversational narcissism. The author demonstrates through examples the need to intentionally support a conversation through careful questions and not shifting it to your own experiences and ideas. 
  • Gossip: Gossiping (positive and negative) is an effective mechanism to promote social bonding and learning.
  • When to stop listening: Careful listening is inherently draining. Not listening because you don't agree with someone, you are self-absorbed, or you already think you know what someone will say makes you a bad listener. But not listening to someone because you don't have the intellectual or emotional energy to listen at the moment makes you human.  

The rise of social media has given everyone a digital microphone to shout out loud about their lives. Yet despite numerous online connections, many people complain about feeling lonely, unheard. The Coronavirus pandemic has spawned a pandemic of loneliness. More than one-third of 950 Americans reported feeling lonely at least "frequently" in the previous four weeks, according to a newly released survey by researchers at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, conducted in October 2020. This month, Japan's premier Yoshihide Suga appointed a new minister for loneliness to combat rising suicide rates and social isolation.  

The most effective vaccine to deal with loneliness is listening. When you listen well, you figure out what's going on in someone's mind and demonstrate that you care enough to want to know. 

Do read the book to listen better. Happy listening!

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