by Kate Murphy
Reviewed by Katia Diamond-Sagias Kate Murphy’s You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters is the first book I read in 2020, and it was a perfect start to the new year. Murphy, a journalist who writes for the New York Times, draws upon interviews with people from all walks of life, most of whom are master listeners by trade: a CIA interrogator, a priest, a focus group moderator--you get the idea. She examines what qualities make a good listener, as well as the common ways we fail to listen in our daily lives. Murphy details the science of listening in an incredibly accessible way, and presents clear, strong arguments, never veering into preachiness or condescension.
After reading this book, I became very aware of my own conversational habits that may hinder my ability to listen, as well as the habits of others. This was, admittedly, a little uncomfortable at first, but necessarily so. For instance, do you find yourself frequently finishing other people’s sentences for them? You may believe this is helpful, indicating to your conversational partner that you are listening to them enough to be able to anticipate what they are about to say. Murphy rightly suggests, however, that this impulse centers you, the interrupter, when you should be centering the person who is speaking. Signaling that you are listening or trying to “help” the other person get to the point faster is not really listening. Who knew? Not me. I think it is fair to say that there are more bad listeners than good ones. We are all busy, and in these grim late-capitalist times it is easy to think of a conversation as merely transactional: you give your information to me and I give mine to you. But is that really what listening is about? Sometimes the answer is yes, of course. However, Murphy wants us to focus less on information or efficiency, and more on giving your conversational partner the “experience of being experienced.” In the extensive research for her book, much of which involved listening to people, Murphy found many, many people who don’t have anyone in their lives who truly listen to them, to experience them. They couldn’t name a single person. Many people thought asking someone to listen was burdensome. This sentiment comes at a time when loneliness in the United States is described as an “epidemic,” and people are feeling more isolated than ever. With so little in our lives completely in our control these days, this is something we can have a part in fixing. Most, if not all, of us deeply crave connection and love, and we try to talk our way into it: blurting our opinion or unloading our feelings onto someone else. Ironically, this hinders us from getting the connection we crave. Murphy thinks we can get it not by talking, but by hearing people out. You might be thinking: “Well, duh.” But it’s not as obvious as it seems, nor as easy as it sounds. We can all be better listeners, and the stakes are higher than they've ever been.