How to be a good listener

The author Kate Murphy thinks our inability to listen properly to other people is leaving us all feeling isolated. In a world of smartphones and busy schedules, can we re-engage? Stephen Moss explores how to become a better listener 

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on The Guardian

I was very suspicious about this assignment. Kate Murphy’s new book, You’re Not Listening, suggests that many of us – absorbed in our own thoughts and dreams, occupying our little digital bubbles – have lost the ability to listen, creating an epidemic of loneliness and isolation. The thesis seems inherently plausible – but why me? Were you trying to tell me something about my inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to listen?

As my editor started telling me how I might approach this piece, I began – much to the amusement of our colleagues – interrupting her. OK, maybe I do have a little problem shutting up for a few minutes to listen, a tendency to anticipate what the other person is going to say, and to reply before they have even had the chance to express it the way they want to. 

“Bad listeners are not necessarily bad people,” Kate Murphy says in her book, but being unable, or unwilling, to listen is not an attractive characteristic. It’s time for a spot of re-education. Let’s hope that, after a life of lecturing rather than listening, it’s not too late.

A very good listener

Kate, a journalist based in Texas, is a very good listener; I can tell that even on a long-distance ‘phone link. She engages; treats my questions seriously; studiously compliments me for taking the trouble to read her book; tries to have a proper conversation. She has what is the crucial characteristic of the good listener – curiosity. Her hero is the late oral historian Studs Terkel who found that everyone had a great story to tell if you could be bothered to talk to them properly and listen to what they had to say.

“Everybody is interesting if you ask the right questions,” says Kate. “If someone is dull, or uninteresting, it’s on you.” This makes me think of too many tedious, failed interviews I’ve done, including one with a famous author during which I fell asleep. I’d always argued that both parties were to blame – an interview is a two-way street, after all – but it looks like I have to carry the can. I just wasn’t trying hard enough to care.

“I saw a crying need to write this book,” says Kate. “Everyone is so intent on expressing their own opinion, or they’re so distracted by technology or by their own thoughts, that it’s making us isolated, misinformed and intolerant. I wanted to raise awareness of the value and great joy of listening.” 

She spent two years analysing academic research on listening, and interviewed numerous people who are paid to listen intensely – ‘spies, priests, psychotherapists, bartenders, hostage negotiators, hairdressers, air-traffic controllers, radio producers, focus group moderators’. The result is a fascinating guide to something we assume we do automatically yet, for the most part, do very badly.

A practised listener

Kate doesn’t claim to be a naturally good listener, but says she is a ‘practised’ one. “Anyone can get good at it,” she argues. “The more people you talk to, the better your gut instinct. You’re able to pick up those little cues.” She says the fact we now spend so much time communicating electronically means we are losing the ability to pick up all those face-to-face cues; without them, she explains, “you’re not going to get the full context and nuance of the conversation”.

Bad listeners may not be bad people but, Kate says, the effects of bad listening are profound. “Anyone who has shared something personal, and received a thoughtless or uncomprehending response, knows how it makes your soul want to crawl back into its hiding place,” she writes. “Whether someone is confessing a misdeed, proposing an idea, sharing a dream, revealing an anxiety or recalling a significant event – that person is giving up a piece of him or herself. And if you don’t handle it with care, the person will start to edit future conversations with you, knowing, ‘I can’t be real with this person.’”

Before I talked to Kate I made a point of meeting Gillian Rowe, a psychotherapist based in Tunbridge Wells. “To be able to really listen you have to get rid of your own ego, your own thoughts,” she says. “It’s almost impossible to do, but you’ve got to try to put all that aside.” She says that, when she works with couples, she asks them to listen to each other and then repeat what the other has just said. “That might sound like quite an easy exercise to do,” she says, “but, invariably, they will put their own twist on it and change it.” Ego-free, agenda-free listening is hard.

A professional listener

I relate my awkwardness to Kate, contrasting my nerviness with Gillian’s placid thoughtfulness. She immediately recognises the hallmark of the professional listener. “That was something I noticed in all the really excellent listeners I interviewed,” she says. “They all had a very calm demeanour. They were very open, but they weren’t in their own heads. That can be unnerving to someone who is all over the place. It’s more comfortable if the other person isn’t listening because then you’re not responsible for what you’re saying.”

The generally accepted view is that women, having inherently more empathy than men, are better listeners. Kate, although she admits that’s what everyone assumes, is reluctant to accept it as a general rule. “It’s a pervasive thought, and both men and women think that,” she says, “so you have to wonder if there isn’t something to it. But I’ve met women who are terrible listeners and men who are great listeners, so it really depends on the situation.”

The real art of listening lies in caring, profoundly – caring, about what you are being told and about the person who is telling their story. In her book, Kate offers an encomium to the people she has interviewed during her career. “Without exception, they have expanded my worldview and increased my understanding,” she says. “Many have touched me deeply. People describe me as the type of person who can talk to anyone, but it’s really that I can listen to anyone.” 

Curiosity, empathy, a genuine interest in other people; the art of listening is really the art of being human.

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