For her new book, You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters, Houston journalist Kate Murphy spent two years delving into the academic and scientific research related to listening, trying to understand the biochemical and emotional effects of feeling properly heard or, more often, feeling unheard. She also spoke to a cross section of professionals whose jobs revolve around listening—from psychotherapists and hostage negotiators to CIA interrogators and focus group moderators.
“They’re all very curious,” she says of the through line that connects high-quality listeners. “They all want to know what the other person’s thinking, but also how the person is feeling about the conversation that they’re having. And they have a stillness to them. When you’re with them, you don’t get a sense that there’s anywhere else they need to be, that they want you to hurry up. They have all the time in the world for you, and they’re really interested. That makes them a really good listener. And it also makes the other person more willing to share.”
Murphy’s book is a celebration of listening, but also a warning: she says we’re listening to each other less often and for shorter periods than ever before and that research shows that’s making us lonely, less tolerant, and more isolated. By talking to what she calls “Olympic-level listeners,” Murphy—who’s written for the New York Times, the Economist, and us here at Texas Monthly—has collected best practices for better listening and lays out the ways those can be game-changers in our personal and professional lives.
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On the National Podcast of Texas, Murphy discusses the impact on our politics of our inability to listen, the neuroscience behind listening, the surprising value of gossip, and what Texans (and hairstylists) are doing right.
Three takeaways from our conversation:
1. One of the listening experts Murphy spoke to for the book describes moments in which we feel listened to as “snatches of magic.” She says subsequent interviews with neuroscientists proved why we have such strong visceral reactions to being truly heard.
“When I talked to neuroscientists, they could actually show me on fMRI brain scans what happens between the speaker and the listener at that moment of understanding and connection. Their brain waves—their neural patterns—actually sync up. So when we talk about being totally in sync with someone, that’s actually true. As a result, chemicals like oxytocin—feel-good chemicals—are released that cause you to attach and feel bonded to people. And by virtue of evolution, you see how that actually has worked to our advantage because those moments of connection are what helps us understand one another, to really pass big ideas back and forth. That’s how we cooperated on a level that allowed us to hunt woolly mammoth and fly to the moon.”
2. Murphy says cellphones and social media are among the factors behind the decline in real listening, but adds that technology often just reinforces bad habits we already had.
“Phones can exacerbate tendencies we already had, but my book is not a screed against technology. I like my technology as much as anyone, but when it gets in the way of you actually accomplishing those snatches of magic, which is increasingly what’s happening, that’s where you get into trouble. It can be wonderful. Your phone can be a bridge between those moments of connection to stay in touch. But when you use it as a substitute, that’s when you get lost. Studies have shown that just the presence of the phone on the table turned off, even if everybody knows it’s off, diminishes the level of the conversation. People are more superficial; they don’t get into subjects that are more meaningful. So it’s this weird loop of your phone making the conversation less interesting, which makes you more apt to pick up your phone. It’s this reinforcing cycle where you’re going to have a soul-sucking conversation because the phone is out.”
3. Murphy says her research suggests that people like rideshare drivers, bartenders, or therapists are often good listeners because they wind up talking to lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds and situations. Similarly, people report feeling really listened to by hairstylists.
“The barbershop or beauty parlor is a very particular circumstance where someone is standing really close to you, they’re touching your head, and they’re asking you very personal questions like, ‘How do you think about how you look?’ and ‘How do you want to look?’ And when they’re talking to the hairstylist, they’re looking at themselves in the mirror. So that provokes even more of this self-reflection and self-revelation. I think by having themselves reflected back, and then the other person being so close and asking such personal questions, it’s a unique situation.”