Forgetting to Listen

Kate Murphy’s “You’re Not Listening” is a reminder that in the age of everyone having a voice, it helps if there is someone listening. The book is filled with practical wisdom that has already paid dividends for me. However, at times, the book does tip into the feelings over reality territory that feels so ever present in our culture.

People have often told me, “you are a really good listener.” I just thought I was curious. I have long been fascinated with how people interact. Why people do what they do. What they choose to reveal and what they choose to conceal – from each other and from themselves. So, when I picked up Kate’s book, I did it with the intent to uphold my preexisting opinion – I AM in fact listening and this book is for all my friends and family who would never pick it up themselves. I was wrong. Somewhere along the way, in this busy and chaotic life, I stopped listening.

Where had I gone wrong? At some point, I went from being curious about other people to having things to say. I spend a lot of time reading, learning, listening and reflecting on content like books, podcasts, and media. And when I have an opportunity to bring my sharpened discussion points to a conversation with friends and family, I do. But this comes with an unexpected cost. My explanatory stance has not yielded me with an ever growing contact list of people reaching out to get my opinion on issues – it might be doing just the opposite.

People when confronted with someone who “knows more,” shift into status mode. They try to save face and appear more knowledgeable, take the moral high ground, or become defensive. The conversation does not become one of fascination and exploration between two people who know about different things in the world as I so often hear in podcasts (yes, like the Joe Rogan Experience), but instead it becomes trapped contention. People shift from curiosity to the need to score points.

In the short time since I have read Kate Murphy’s book, I have shifted how I approach conversations. My goal previously, if I had been asked and if I had been forced to crystallize it, might have been to have interesting conversations. I felt it was my duty to bring and share things from the world that were interesting. This is easy because I find the world incredibly fascinating and ceaselessly amazing. Just the fact that water falls from the sky periodically is enough to blow me away. But now I have a new goal, and it is…hard to define.

I want people to share. I want people to feel heard. I want people to walk away from conversations with a smile on their face because for the first time in a long time they felt heard. This sounds mushy and vague and somewhat nebulous as I write it – and perhaps that is my failure as a writer, because what I have in my head is much clearer. Conversations change temperature when you ask a follow up question instead of sharing something about yourself after someone has finished speaking.

The whole book is worth reading (and rereading perhaps) but the chapter that stood out to me the most was “Supporting, Not Shifting, the Conversation.” That is in effect, what I have been writing about. Over the last 5 years I have become someone who shifts, instead of supports the conversation. All the while, feeling like I was supporting the entire conversation because I would talk endlessly about whatever issues were relevant, but in effect, I was taking away from others abilities to share and learn about themselves.

The book at times shifts a bit close to the feelings over reality territory. “Reality is perception” is a popular cultural thesis – aka Expressive Individualism. Roughly defined as what you feel is real because you feel it. This idea is true, but only half true. Your feelings are true and important, but there is also a shared world outside of your feelings and your perspective, and that is reality. A person’s ability to sync with reality is one way to define mental health. 90% of this book might be used to defend the “reality is perception” notion, but I don’t believe Kate is making that argument.

There is a great short film on YouTube called, “It’s not about the nail.” Sometimes it feels like this book is an argument that “it’s not about the nail.” Kate differentiates herself from this occasionally in the book. And the very last chapter is important, “When to Stop Listening.” As with most things, it comes down to each conversation and each reader to differentiate when, who, and how they listen.

17/21 – well worth the money and the read.