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How to Be a Good Listener: My Mission to Learn the Most Important Skill of All

The author Kate Murphy thinks our inability to listen properly to other people is leaving us all feeling isolated. In a world of smartphones and busy schedules, can we re-engage?

The Guardian

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I was very suspicious about this assignment. Kate Murphy’s new book, You’re Not Listening, suggests that many of us – absorbed in our own thoughts and dreams, occupying our little digital bubbles – have lost the ability to listen, creating an epidemic of loneliness and isolation. The thesis seems inherently plausible – but why me? Are you trying to tell me something about my inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to listen?

As my editor started telling me how I might approach this piece, I began – much to the amusement of our colleagues – interrupting her. OK, maybe I do have a little problem shutting up for a few minutes to listen; a tendency to anticipate what the other person is going to say and reply before they have even had the chance to express it the way they want to. “Bad listeners are not necessarily bad people,” Murphy says in her book, but being unable or unwilling to listen is not an attractive characteristic. It’s time for a spot of re-education. Let’s hope that after a life of lecturing rather than listening, it’s not too late.

Murphy, a journalist based in Texas, is a very good listener. I can tell that even on a long-distance phone link. She engages; treats my questions seriously; studiously compliments me for taking the trouble to read her book; tries to have a proper conversation. She has what is the crucial characteristic of the good listener – curiosity. Her hero is the late oral historian Studs Terkel, who found that everyone had a great story to tell if you could be bothered to talk to them properly and listen to what they had to say.

“Everybody is interesting if you ask the right questions,” says Murphy. “If someone is dull or uninteresting, it’s on you.” This makes me think of too many tedious, failed interviews I’ve done, including one with a famous author during which I fell asleep. I’d always argued both parties were to blame – an interview is a two-way street, after all – but it looks like I have to carry the can. I just wasn’t trying hard enough to care.

“I saw a crying need to write this book,” Murphy says. “Everyone is so intent on expressing their own opinion, or they’re so distracted by technology or by their own thoughts, that it’s making us isolated, misinformed and intolerant. I wanted to raise awareness of the value and great joy of listening.” She spent two years analysing academic research on listening and interviewed numerous people who are paid to listen intensely – “spies, priests, psychotherapists, bartenders, hostage negotiators, hairdressers, air-traffic controllers, radio producers, focus group moderators”. The result is a fascinating guide to something we assume we do automatically, yet for the most part do very badly.

Murphy doesn’t claim to be a naturally good listener, but says she is a “practised” one. “Anyone can get good at it,” she argues. “The more people you talk to, the better your gut instinct. You’re able to pick up those little cues.” She says the fact we now spend so much time communicating electronically means we are losing the ability to pick up all those face-to-face cues. Without them, she explains, “you’re not going to get the full context and nuance of the conversation”.

Bad listeners may not be bad people, but Murphy says the effects of bad listening are profound. “Anyone who has shared something personal and received a thoughtless or uncomprehending response knows how it makes your soul want to crawl back into its hiding place,” she writes. “Whether someone is confessing a misdeed, proposing an idea, sharing a dream, revealing an anxiety or recalling a significant event – that person is giving up a piece of him or herself. And if you don’t handle it with care, the person will start to edit future conversations with you, knowing: ‘I can’t be real with this person.’”

Before I talked to Murphy, I made a point of meeting Gillian Rowe, a psychotherapist based in Tunbridge Wells. I had met Rowe once before – we had a friend in common – and, as what could be called a professional listener, she agreed to discuss her approach to listening. I found our conversation strangely unnerving, and became aware of all my own tics – bursts of rapid-fire opinion, half-finished sentences, a tendency to interrupt, an inability to absorb what Rowe was saying (she practises transactional analysis, which I found really hard to grasp) while formulating my next question. All this contrasted with her measured, fluent, unhurried approach. She calmly let the conversation take its course; I felt I was constantly bending and stretching it, trying to hurry it on to some preordained end.

“To be able to really listen, you have to get rid of your own ego, your own thoughts,” says Rowe. “It’s almost impossible to do, but you’ve got to try to put all that aside.” She says that, when she works with couples, she asks them to listen to each other and then repeat what the other has just said. “That might sound like quite an easy exercise to do,” she says, “but invariably they will put their own twist on it and change it.” Ego-free, agenda-free listening is hard.

I relate my awkwardness to Murphy, contrasting my nerviness with Rowe’s placid thoughtfulness. She immediately recognises the hallmark of the professional listener. “That was something I noticed in all the really excellent listeners I interviewed,” she says. “They all had a very calm demeanour. They were very open, but they weren’t in their own heads. That can be unnerving to someone who is all over the place. It’s more comfortable if the other person isn’t listening because then you’re not responsible for what you’re saying.”

The generally accepted view is that women, having inherently more empathy than men, are better listeners. Murphy, although she admits that’s what everyone assumes, is reluctant to accept it as a general rule. “It’s a pervasive thought and both men and women think that,” she says. “So you have to wonder if there isn’t something to it. But I’ve met women who are terrible listeners and men who are great listeners, so it really depends on the situation.”

Murphy argues that our growing failure to listen has dire political consequences because we are no longer willing to engage with our opponents’ points of view. In the US, for instance, “senators used to meet in a communal dining room where they talked to each other and were exposed to each other in a way where they could really listen, whether it was about politics or something else. They humanised each other. Now people are intent on being separate and demonising one another. It’s not just that they don’t agree. They think the other person is bad, is an evil person. You can’t start listening if you think the other person is fundamentally an idiot or a bad person.” She says you only grow when you listen to opposing viewpoints – a powerful argument for escaping from our social-media echo chamber.

For some, the ability to listen can be a matter of life and death, which is why every day thousands of Samaritans volunteers are on call for desperate people with an urgent need to be heard. I go to Samaritans central office at an old mill in Surrey to meet its senior learning and development officer, Lucia Capobianco, who has also done listening shifts at her local branch for more than 10 years. As with Rowe, I am immediately struck by her calm, unhurried good sense. After an hour in her company, I feel better for having met her.

Capobianco says the key to their work is making the person who has made the call feel in control. “We want them to take control of their decisions, which is why we will get them to talk about options by exploring open questions. The idea of Samaritans is not to make someone dependent on the service; we want to be able to talk to someone, to listen to them, find out what’s going on and help them to move out of that situation.”

She says volunteers are trained to avoid being drawn into a discussion of themselves – something callers sometimes try to do. All the focus will be on the caller, with open questions that gradually get to the heart of whatever is bothering them. They don’t see their role as advisers. They are a sounding board, there to listen and try to understand. “What people want is to tell you what’s going on at that moment,” says Capobianco. “They just want to put it out there. Sometimes, it just needs a small thing like saying to someone: ‘It is really crap, isn’t it? The situation you’re in is really awful; it’s horrible.’ And they feel validated because you’re the first person who has said: ‘It’s OK to feel this way.’”

Capobianco says the organisation teaches its volunteers to be active listeners – a term coined in 1957 by the US psychologists Richard Farson and Carl Rogers. Active listening is a kind of super-engaged form of listening in which the listener concentrates intently on what is being said, asks questions to add detail and summarises what they have been told. New volunteers often consider themselves to be good listeners, but they soon realise the training they are given in active listening makes them far more effective. “There is a point when the active listening kicks in and their family and friends notice they are listening differently,” says Capobianco.

In our everyday lives, we will not usually have to talk people down from desperate situations or offer counselling that lays bare deep-seated psychological issues. But we can learn from the way the pros approach listening. It’s about empathy, asking the right questions, being patient and giving people the time and space to tell their stories in the way they want to, offering odd words of encouragement, but not interrupting the flow and not feeling the need to fill every silence.

“You have to give people breathing space,” says Capobianco. “It takes a lot of courage to ring Samaritans. They may be very upset, they may present quite aggressively to start with, they may blurt everything out, and silence just calms things down, gives them a break. When they’ve got everything out, you can start to talk to them. You acknowledge their anger and say you are sorry this is happening to them, then lower your voice and say: ‘Where would you like to start?’ If someone is agitated and you start trying to come in with questions, you just make them more agitated and the conversation doesn’t work.”

Samaritans publishes a list of listening tips: show you care by making eye contact and putting your phone away; have patience; use open questions and avoid putting your own spin on what you are being told; say it back to show you’ve understood, but don’t try to impose your own instantaneous solution; have the courage to ask someone how they feel and really care about their reply.

Today, the third Monday of this challenging month, a day generally known as “Blue Monday”, Samaritans is launching a campaign, neatly called “Brew Monday”, to encourage family and friends to have a cup of tea together, talk about their lives and problems, and practise their listening skills. The organisation will even be supplying teabags at railway stations and branch events across the country for what it hopes will be a heartening, loneliness-defying brew.

When we meet, Rowe also brings a set of listening tips, and it coincides with Samaritans’ list at many points. Show empathy – enter into the world of the other person. Concentrate. Ask open questions: “What was it like for you?” “How did you feel?” “Can you tell me more?” Reflect back the speaker’s feelings and paraphrase what they have been saying in clear, simple language. Gently ask for clarification, although, as trust develops, she says you can begin to challenge what they are saying and focus more intensely on the problem they want, sometimes very guardedly, to discuss.

Can journalists hope to listen in the way that the professionals do? I ask Simon Hattenstone, a very skilful Guardian interviewer, who last year, with Daniel Lavelle, wrote a remarkable series on the deaths of homeless people in the UK that demanded tremendous listening skills when it came to finding out about them from family and friends.

“Liv Ullmann told me I was a really bad listener because I kept interrupting,” Hattenstone recalls. “When I was young, I used to think it was quite a cool technique; that it would make people relax by making them think I didn’t give a shit about what they were saying.” He says that back then he thought silences put people on their guard and made them too aware of what they might be about to reveal. Now, he says, he tries not to fill the silence, preferring to let the subject find their own way through it.

“The most powerful things are often when you let the silence roll,” he explains. That was especially true for the homeless deaths series, where he says it was essential to let the bereaved “have their emotions and let them think their way through” rather than impose his own agenda. A TV interview, he says, is about drama and confrontation; a print interview is about detail and getting proper answers. Like Capobianco, he says you have to “slow people down” when you talk to them because “they always want to speed up”. You have to get as much detail as you can, and clues to a person’s motivation or to the crux of an event will appear in unlikely places.

Hattenstone says there is always a danger of following your interview script so slavishly that you miss the essence of what you are being told. “Someone is answering and you’re already thinking about the next question, which is awful because you’re not listening,” he explains. “Often in the best interviews people will take you to places you completely don’t expect to go, but if you’re rigidly looking at your questions you often miss what people say. It passes you by.”

The real art of listening lies in caring, profoundly caring, about what you are being told and about the person who is telling their story. In her book, Murphy offers an encomium to the people she has interviewed during her career. “Without exception, they have expanded my worldview and increased my understanding,” she says. “Many have touched me deeply. People describe me as the type of person who can talk to anyone, but it’s really that I can listen to anyone.” Curiosity, empathy, a genuine interest in other people. The art of listening is really the art of being human.

Stephen Moss is a feature writer at the Guardian. His book The Rookie: An Odyssey through Chess (and Life) is published by Bloomsbury. Twitter @StephenMossGdn

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This post originally appeared on The Guardian and was published January 20, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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