Cy Heffley

Every once in a while, someone writes something that punches me square in the chin and forces me to re-evaluate a critical part of how I see myself. The latest person to do that is Kate Murphy.

At the recommendation of a friend, I read her 2019 book “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters” over the past week. Murphy’s pinpointed exactly what has felt wrong in most of my daily interactions for years: the prevalence of terrible listening patterns across many communities in the US.

This book first caught my attention only a few pages in, when Murphy highlights a number of bad listening habits that I realized describe me perfectly:

“When [poor listeners] finish your sentences for you, they truly believe that they are being helpful. They may interrupt because they thought of something that you would really want to know or they thought of a joke that was too funny to wait… Maybe they nod very quickly to move you along, sneak glances at their watches or phones, lightly tap the table…”

Not only did she pick out the habits that annoyed me the most when others do them, but it wasn’t until I read this on paper that I realized I’ve done every single one of these things, almost subconsciously, to family, friends, and colleagues for years. I even had to put the book down for a minute out of sheer disgust, realizing how inconsiderate all of these chronic behaviors had come off.

After explaining the classic symptoms of bad listeners in the 21st century, Murphy dives into what causes these behaviors, beginning with how our perspective of success has always been connected to speaking. How good are we at speaking or writing? Who are the most important people we’ve spoken to in our lives? What’s the largest group we’ve spoken to?

As a result, Murphy argues, we don’t place enough societal importance on listening. For all of our amazing speech skills, we fall on deaf ears when we don’t try to listen to each other, and we end up feeling more disconnected than ever despite how many people we might regularly interact with.

Meanwhile, the “attention economy” of the digital era amplifies our feelings of isolation. Businesses wage billions of dollars against each other to prey on our desires to be heard and our insecurity that we aren’t heard enough. Not only are social media platforms engineered to keep us addicted to pouring our energy and time into keeping up with the accounts we follow, but platforms like Instagram and YouTube have only exacerbated our unhealthy fixations with the idea that having a large audience is the strongest metric of success: few things today are seen as more impressive than building an online presence.

“You’re Not Listening” is not an easy read; where many popular books on social interaction come off as almost naïvely simplistic in their views of human nature, Murphy recognizes that millions of people are collectively suffering from environmental influences that discourage us from deeply listening to each other. Her solution to the commonly-cited “epidemic of loneliness” is that we have to:

  • learn how to identify and either avoid or mitigate environmental distractions
  • slow down our conversations to make sure we understand what the other person is saying, and
  • be genuinely curious about those around us

Otherwise, if we continue to run on “our default setting,” as David Foster Wallace called it, it’ll be very difficult in the digital age for us to feel like we really mean anything to one another.

Among other topics in listening, Murphy explores how our upbringing affects our conversational and behavioral patterns into adulthood (check out attachment theory) and how we can unlearn negative thought patterns and forge new, more constructive ones through approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy.

Finishing this book, especially its chapter on learning when, how, and why to let other people steer conversations, has not only forced me to constantly re-evaluate the times when I should speak in almost every conversation, but also how I see myself in doing so. It’s taxing to have different ideas in my head mid-conversation that now battle against each other to get air time, but I’ve noticed a lot of my conversations have felt fuller and I’ve been slowly starting to learn more from others.

In a time where many federal health agencies are citing loneliness as a severe hazard to more and more people’s health, I recommend this read for anyone who’s recently felt trouble connecting with those around them.