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

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

by Kate Murphy

Listening has the potential to transform our relationships and our working lives, improve our self-knowledge, and increase our creativity and happiness. In ‘You're Not Listening’, Kate Murphy explains why we’re not listening, what it’s doing to us, and how we can reverse the trend. Listening is about curiosity and patience – about asking the right questions in the right way. Improvisational comedians and con men are much better at it than most of us. While it may take some effort, listening well is a skill that can be learned and Kate Murphy shows us how.

Summary Notes


“In modern life, we are encouraged to listen to our hearts, listen to our inner voices, and listen to our guts, but rarely are we encouraged to listen carefully and with intent to other people.”

Listening goes beyond just hearing what people say. It also requires paying attention to context, to the other person’s tone and attitude, and to how their message resonates within you. It requires you to respond appropriately during conversations as your responses will determine how much the other person trusts you. Thoughtful responses will encourage them to communicate what’s really on their mind and in turn, this will help you better organize your thoughts too. Essentially, effective listening is how you develop wisdom and form meaningful relationships. 

How well you listen determines your life’s course. Our collective listening profoundly affects us socially and culturally. To listen poorly is to limit your understanding of the world and deprive yourself of becoming the best you can be. Done well, listening can transform your understanding of people and the world, which inevitably enriches and elevates your experience and existence.

Actions to take

The Lost Art of Listening

“People describe me as the type of person who can talk to anyone, but it’s really that I can listen to anyone.”

People are often too busy or distracted to explore one another’s thoughts and feelings, and this leads to distance between one another. If someone tells a story that takes longer than thirty seconds, heads bow to read texts, check sports scores, or see what’s trending online. Many people say they are too busy to listen, or they cannot be bothered to listen, and tend to find texting or emailing more efficient.

In social situations, it is more common to pass around a phone to look at pictures instead of describing what we’ve seen or experienced recently. We do not find shared humor in conversation as often, preferring to show one another internet memes and YouTube videos. 

Listening well will supercharge your conversations. By listening and inquiring, you show you are interested and that you care. You will develop the ability to acknowledge someone’s point of view with a sensitive response and encourage trust.

Actions to take

That Syncing Feeling: The Neuroscience of Listening

“It’s what we all crave; to be understood as a person with thoughts, emotions, and intentions that are unique and valuable and deserving of attention.”

fMRI scans show that the greater the overlap between the speaker’s and listener’s brain activity in a conversation, the better the communication. Our desire to have our brains connect and synchronize with others starts at birth. If this yearning is not satisfied, it can profoundly affect our well-being. Attentive and responsive caregivers give children the ability to listen empathetically and thus form functional and supportive relationships as adults. 

Most people get aggravated when people don’t listen to them. Poor listening behaviors include: interrupting, fidgeting, responding illogically, and looking away from the speaker. 

Everyone yearns to be known and understood more deeply. By listening to others, you find comfort in shared values and similar experiences and also understand where your values diverge. By accepting differences in others, we develop understanding and discover what makes people truly unique.

Actions to take

Listening to Your Curiosity

“The most valuable lesson I’ve learned as a journalist is that everybody is interesting if you ask the right questions. If someone is dull or uninteresting, it’s on you.”

Listening requires curiosity and an openness to new information. Researchers found that when talking to inattentive listeners, speakers remembered less information and were less articulate. Conversely, they found that attentive listeners elicited more information, relevant detail, and elaboration from speakers, even when the listeners didn’t ask any questions. 

So, if you’re barely listening to someone because you think that person is boring, you will actually make it so.

We can work on our listening skills by pushing out of our comfort zones and trying to talk to random people. For example, try striking up a conversation with the person beside you on your morning commute. When you truly want to understand others and connect with them, you will automatically listen better. Plus, when you are genuinely curious, courteous, and attentive, you will discover how correspondingly gracious and interesting other people are.  

You will be exposed to a greater variety of people, conversations, points of view, and experiences. It makes life interesting, will help make you interesting to others, and will grow your listening skills and worldview.

Actions to take

I Know What You’re Going to Say: Assumptions as Earplugs

“The sum of daily interactions and activities continually shapes us and adds nuance to our understanding of the world so that no one is the same as yesterday nor will today’s self be identical to tomorrow’s.”

“Let me finish!” “That’s not what I said!” are common refrains in relationships where people feel misunderstood. We tend to make assumptions about those we love - it’s called the closeness communication bias. We believe we know them so well that we don’t listen, thinking we know what the other person will say anyway. 

However, opinions and beliefs change. It doesn’t matter how well you know people; if you stop listening, you will eventually lose your grasp of who they are and how to relate to them.

When we listen to people we don’t know, we tend to have a different set of biases rooted in false assumptions. This is because we unconsciously categorize people to make sense of this complex world. These categories are usually broad stereotypes influenced by our culture or our unique experiences.

Going into conversations thinking you already know everything limits your ability to grow, learn, and connect. What and how much people tell you depends on how they perceive you at that moment. If you are listening to find fault or to jump in with an opinion, they are unlikely to tell you anything meaningful.

Actions to take

Why People Would Rather Talk to Their Dog

“Talking to him, you get the sense that you are his only focus, that there is nowhere else he needs to be, which makes him incredibly, if not irresistibly, likable.”

People are more likely to feel understood if a listener goes beyond nodding or paraphrasing and responds with descriptive and evaluative information. Descriptive information describes or classifies what the speaker is saying, in an objective and non-judgemental way, while evaluative responses offer opinions and points of view in a clear and concise manner.  So, effective listening requires interpretation and interplay. People want you to understand what the story means to them, not to simply confirm that you heard the story’s details.

Unfortunately, most people aren’t good at this type of listening. Research suggests that listeners’ responses are emotionally attuned to what speakers are saying less than five percent of the time! It’s no wonder that many people feel like their pets are better listeners than the humans around them - they give you their emotional attention, at the very least.

Well-known psychologist Carl Rogers refers to this as active listening. He believes that when listening actively, we hear the words, the thoughts, the feeling tones, and even the unconscious messages of the other person. Then, we can truly relate to them.

Actions to take

Talking Like a Tortoise, Thinking Like a Hare: The Speech-Thought Differential

“The other person’s lips were moving, and yet you heard nothing until a stray word or a phrase like sex, stock tip, or borrow your car snapped you back to attention—'Wait, what?’”

Have you ever been talking to someone and got so distracted by your own thoughts that it was as if you put the other person on mute? Your brief exit from the conversation was caused by the speech-thought differential, which refers to the fact that we can think a lot faster than someone can talk. 

The average person talks at around 120–150 words per minute, taking up a fraction of our cognitive capacity, so we use the excess to think about other things. We wonder if we have spinach in our teeth and get distracted thinking about what witty or scathing thing we want to say next. 

We may divert our attention a little too long and return to the conversation somewhat behind. Having missed parts of the narrative, we unconsciously (and often incorrectly) fill in the gaps. As a result, what the person is saying makes less sense. Rather than admit we’re lost, we depart once again into our reveries. Ultimately, this creates a huge gap in communication.

Actions to take

Why Listening to Opposing Views Feels Like Being Chased by a Bear

“Which means they must ask questions out of curiosity as opposed to questioning to prove a point, set a trap, change someone’s mind, or to make the other person look foolish.”

Disagreements and differences of opinion are inevitable, whether they are over business or personal matters. Professor Ralph Nichols offers advice for anyone engaged in any kind of dispute: listen for evidence that you might be wrong, rather than listening to poke holes in the other person’s argument. If you remain open to the possibility that you might be wrong, or at least not entirely right, you’ll get far more out of the conversation.

The amygdala is the part of the brain that primes us to physically react (racing pulse, tense muscles) when we perceive a threat. In the past, it helped us fight or flee from threats like tigers; but today, our biggest worry tends to be social rejection. This manifests in socially-related anxieties and makes us vulnerable to slights and insults. 

Opposing viewpoints can feel like you are being personally threatened or attacked. This explains why people can get in shouting matches when they disagree, rather than have a calm discussion. In the moment, the primitive brain interprets a difference of opinion as being abandoned by the tribe, alone and unprotected, so fear and outrage take over.

Amygdala activation clouds judgment, rendering us irrational. Research shows that engaging higher-order thinking (such as careful listening) tamps down activity in your amygdala, allowing us to respond rather than react.

Actions to take

Developing Conversational Sensitivity

“Research indicates that people who have a higher degree of self-awareness are better listeners, in part because they know the sorts of things that lead them to jump to the wrong conclusions and thus are less likely to do so.”

Conversational sensitivity refers to a superior ability to listen and detect what’s really going on in conversations. People who have conversational sensitivity not only pay attention to spoken words, they can also pick up hidden meanings and nuances in tone and body language. They remember more of what people say and tend to be genuinely interested in the conversation. 

You can’t be good at detecting intricate cues in conversation if you haven’t listened to a lot of people with a range of experiences and contradictory views. The more people you listen to, the more aspects of humanity you will recognize, and the better your gut instinct will be. It is said that intuition is nothing more than recognition - a practiced skill that depends on exposure to a wide range of opinions, attitudes, beliefs, and emotions.

Actions to take

Listening to Yourself: The Voluble Inner Voice

“In one experiment, 64 percent of men and 15 percent of women began self-administering shocks rather than be alone with their thoughts.”

Your inner voice influences how you ponder things, interpret situations, make moral judgments, and solve problems. This, in turn, influences your worldview. Do you see the best or worst in people? What do you see in yourself? 

An inner voice that says, “Are you sure you want to do that? Put yourself in their shoes” and “Yeah, that was hurtful, but maybe they didn’t intend to hurt you”, is a vastly different voice from the one that says, “They are all out to get me”. The latter voice prompts you to react in ways that are not to your benefit.

The dialogues you have with yourself often have to do with problems and disappointments. In quiet moments, our minds go to what needs fixing. When you are aware of your inner voice, you can start to step into the drivers’ seat regarding its tone and content. 

Identifying the current traits of your inner voice will allow you to start recognizing its impact and begin learning how to talk to yourself differently. You can replace an unhelpful inner voice that sounds like a belittling parent, or negative friend, with a voice that suggests kinder or more open ways of thinking.

Actions to take

Supporting, Not Shifting, the Conversation

“To listen openly takes a certain amount of adventurousness and even some courage because you don’t know where you may end up.”

Sociologist Charles Derber has identified two kinds of responses. Most common is the shift response, which directs attention away from the speaker and towards the respondent. Less common is the support response, which encourages elaboration from the speaker to help the respondent gain greater understanding. For example:

Sue: I watched this really good documentary about turtles last night.

Bob: I’m not big on documentaries. I’m more of an action-film guy. (shift response)

Sue: I watched this really good documentary about turtles last night.

Bob: How did you happen to see that? Are you into turtles? (support response)

Good questions don’t begin with: “Don’t you think…?” “Isn’t it true…?” And good questions don’t end with “right?” These are shift responses and will likely lead others to give incomplete or less-than-honest answers that fit the questioner’s opinions. Also, avoid questions that are recommendations or judgments in disguise. For example, “Why don’t you divorce him?” The shift response often occurs when people try to solve, minimize or explain away the speaker’s problems.

On the other hand, good listeners use the support response -  open-ended questions that don't subtly impose their own opinion or have a hidden agenda of fixing or advising. For example: “What was your reaction?” rather than “Didn’t that upset you?” The goal is to understand the speaker’s point of view, not to sway it.  Fill-in-the-blank questions are useful - “You and Roger got in a fight because…?” These allow the speaker to go in any direction, and communicate their point of view more effectively.

Actions to take

Loud Sounds May Cause Damage

“Experts have begun referring to teenagers today as “Generation Deaf” because near chronic earbud or headphone use is ruining their hearing.”

The mechanics of listening—the structures within our ears—are fragile and should be protected. Fifteen percent of Americans, around 48 million people, have hearing loss, with the majority being under sixty-five years of age. Most hearing loss comes from damage to hair cells (stereocilia) within the ear, caused by loud noises. 

A number of everyday activities can damage your stereocilia, including drying your hair, using a blender, going to a rock concert, vacuuming, eating at a noisy restaurant, and riding a motorcycle. Listening to music via earbuds at high volume (around one hundred decibels) will give permanent damage after just fifteen minutes. 

Lower the volume to eighty-eight decibels and you’ll have damage in four hours. Your ears' hair cells might recover if the noise wasn’t too loud and didn’t last too long, but over time, excessive noise can result in significant hearing loss. Earwax buildup may also cause hearing loss and cleaning by an otolaryngologist can improve your hearing. 

By protecting your ears from damage, you may avoid hearing loss. In the long run, poor hearing leads to a litany of poor emotional and social outcomes, including, but not limited to: irritability, negativism, anger, fatigue, tension, stress, depression, avoiding social situations, loneliness, reduced job performance, and diminished psychological and overall health. These symptoms are not so much the result of hearing loss, but the resulting inability to connect with people.

Actions to take

What Words Conceal and Silences Reveal

“I think it’s more that people aren’t used to being listened to, so they end up telling you stuff they don’t even tell their parents or significant others.”

In Western cultures, people get extremely uncomfortable when there are gaps in conversation. People tend to interpret silences longer than half a second as disapproval, so they rush to say something to try to raise their standing. A silence of four seconds is enough for people to change or nuance their expressed opinion, taking the quiet to mean their views are out of line.

Although silences may mean disapproval, it’s more often the case that gaps are because the other person is thinking of taking a breath before continuing. People pause while figuring out what, or how much, to say, or perhaps they need a moment to manage their emotions. Adopting the ‘listener’s demeanor’ encourages people to feel at ease and to open up to you. 

So, sit or stand calmly with a relaxed and open body stance - no fidgeting. Your eyes should remain gently on the speaker with an expression that transmits interest, acceptance, or concern. 

To be a good listener is to respectfully accept and accommodate pauses and silences because filling them too soon prevents the speaker from communicating what they are trying to say. It quashes elaboration and prevents real issues from coming to the surface. Some of the most interesting and valuable bits of information come not from questioning but from being quiet.

Actions to take

Listening Well

“Conversing with someone who doesn’t listen well—who doesn’t follow what you are saying or take into account how you feel about what you are hearing—is like dancing with someone who is keeping to a different rhythm or has no rhythm.”

In conversations, we expect quality (truth), quantity (information we don’t know, and not too much), relation (relevance, logic), and manner (brief, orderly, clear). If these are violated, we are less inclined to listen. It’s bad listeners who most often violate these expectations.

The stories you tell and the way you tell them depend on your audience. You should adopt a different approach when talking to your grandmother, a girlfriend, or a customer. The best communicators are people who remain attuned to the verbal and nonverbal cues of their audience while speaking, to assess whether people are following and care about the subject.

If you take account of who is in front of you, you can make yourself clear and compelling. Not everybody has the same interests, sensibilities, or level of understanding. To not try to discern and respect those differences is the surest way to bore or aggravate people or otherwise make them shut down and communicate less.

Actions to take

When to Stop Listening

“People tend to regret not listening more than listening and tend to regret things they said more than things they didn’t say.”

Conversing with someone who doesn’t listen well is awkward. For example, if they do not follow what you are saying or take into account how you feel about what you are hearing, you’re likely to not want to continue the conversation. The person may have valuable things to say, but it takes a lot of energy and self-discipline to listen and find out what it is. Their self-centered conversational style more often speaks to deep insecurities, anxieties, or blind spots. 

Sometimes just by you listening, they begin to listen, too—not only to you but also to themselves. And when they do, the conversation becomes more coherent, relevant, and responsive.

Still, generally speaking, careful listening is draining. Part of being a good listener is knowing your limits and setting boundaries. If you can’t listen because you don’t have the intellectual or emotional energy to listen at that moment, it’s best to exit the conversation until later, because if you half-listen, the other person will pick up on it.

Actions to take

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