Top Quotes: “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters” —Kate Murphy


“The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “Nature hath given men one tongue but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.”

To really listen is to be moved physically, chemically, emotionally, and intellectually by another person’s narrative.”

“Listening goes beyond just hearing what people say. It’s also paying attention to how they say it and what they do while they are saying it, in what context, and how what they say resonates within you. It’s not about simply holding your peace while someone else holds forth. Quite the opposite. A lot of listening has to do with how you respond — the degree to which you elicit clear expression of another person’s thoughts and, in the process, crystallize your own. Done well and with deliberation, listening can transform your understanding of the people and the world around you, which inevitably enriches and elevates your experience and existence. It is how you develop wisdom and form meaningful relationships.”

“People get lonely for lack of listening. Psychology and sociology researchers have begun warning of an epidemic of loneliness in the United States. Experts are calling it a public health crisis, as feeling isolated and disconnected increases the risk of premature death as much as obesity and alcoholism combined. The negative health impact is worse than smoking fourteen cigarettes per day. Indeed, epidemiological studies have found. links between loneliness and heart disease, stroke, dementia, and poor immune function.”

“The number of people feeling isolated and alone has only accelerated since that 2004 post. In a 2018 survey of twenty thousand Americans, almost half said they did not have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend, on a daily basis. About the same proportion said they often felt lonely and left out even when others were around. Compare that to the 1980s when similar studies found only 20 percent said they felt that way. Suicide rates today are at a thirty-year high in the United States, up 30 percent since 1999. American life expectancy is now declining due to suicide, opioid addiction, alcoholism, and other so-called diseases of distress often associated with loneliness.

It’s not just in the United States. Loneliness is a worldwide phenomenon. The World Health Organization reports that in the last forty-five years, suicide rates are up 60 percent globally. The UK was moved in 2018 to appoint a “minister for loneliness” to help its 9 million citizens who often or always feel lonely, according to a 2017 government commissioned report.”

The most common feature of transcripts of congressional hearings is the all-caps insertion of the word CROSSTALK, which indicates everyone is talking over one another, and the transcriber, or recorder, of the debate can’t make sense of what anyone is saying.”

“Audits of the Twitter accounts of music celebrities, including Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, and Katy Perry found that the majority of their tens of millions of followers were bots.

Perhaps even more pervasive are lurkers* on social media. These are individuals who set up accounts to see what other people are posting but who rarely, if ever, post anything them-

selves. The 1 percent rule, or 90–9–1 rule, of internet culture holds that 90 percent of users of a given online platform (social media, blogs, wikis, news sites, etc.) just observe and do not participate, 9 percent comment or contribute sparingly, and a scant 1 percent create most of the content.”

“Listening, more than any other activity, plugs you into life. Listening helps you understand yourself as much as those speaking to you. It’s why from the time we are babies, we are more alert to the human voice and exquisitely tuned to its nuances, harmonies, and discordances. Indeed, you begin to listen before you are even born. Fetuses respond to sound at just sixteen weeks’ gestation and, during the last trimester of pregnancy, can clearly distinguish between m language and other sounds. An unborn child can be soothed by a friendly voice and startled by an angry outburst. Hearing is also one of the last senses you lose before you die. Hunger and thirst are the first to go, then speech, followed by vision. Dying patients retain their senses of touch and hearing until the very end.

Research on deaf and hearing-impaired children has shown they can have difficulty recognizing emotions and developing empathy.”

“Hearing is passive. Listening is active. The best listeners focus their attention and recruit other senses to the effort. Their brains work hard to process all that incoming information and find meaning, which opens the door to creativity, empathy, insight, and knowledge. Understanding is the goal of listening, and it takes effort.”

“A study conducted by researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles and Dartmouth College showed that the brains of good friends react similarly when watching short video clips. In fact, the more in line the subjects’ brain activity while watching the videos (of baby sloths, an unknown couple’s wedding, and a debate over whether to ban college football), the closer the subjects were as friends. This is partly due to the fact that people with similar sensibilities gravitate toward one another. But if considered in conjunction with Hasson’s findings, it also suggests who we listen to shapes how we think and react. Our brains not only sync up the moment someone tells us something, the resulting understanding and connection influences how we process subsequent information.”

The Psychology of Listening

“Our desire to have our brains sync, or to connect, with another person is basic and starts at birth. We are all “waiting for it.” It’s how we find friends, create partnerships, advance ideas, and fall in love. But if that yearning is not satisfied, particularly when we’re very young, it can profoundly affect our well-being. No psychological concept emphasizes this more than attachment theory. It’s the idea that our ability to listen and connect with people as adults is shaped by how well our parents listened and connected with us as children.

By the end of our first year, we have imprinted on our baby brains a template of how we think relationships work, based on how attuned our parents or primary caregivers were to our needs. In other words, your ability to form attachments, or your attachment style, is determined by the degree to which your caregivers’ brain waves synced with yours. Attentive and responsive caregivers set you up to have a secure attachment style, which is characterized by an ability to listen empathetically and thus, form functional, meaningful, and mutually supportive relationships.

On the other hand, children whose parents were not dependably attentive typically grow up to be adults with an insecure anxious attachment style, which means they tend to worry and obsess about relationships. They do not listen well m because they are so concerned about losing people’s attention and affection. This m preoccupation can lead them to be overly m dramatic, boastful, or clingy. They might also pester potential friends, colleagues, clients, or romantic interests instead of allowing people m their space.

An insecure avoidant attachment style comes from growing up with caregivers who were mostly inattentive — or perhaps overly attentive, to the point of smothering. People raised this way are often bad listeners because they tend to shut down or leave relationships whenever things get too close. They resist listening because they don’t want to be disappointed or overwhelmed.

Finally, people who have an insecure disorganized attachment style display both anxious and avoidant behaviors in an illogical

and erratic manner. This is often the result of growing up with a caregiver who was threatening or abusive. It’s really hard to listen if you have a disorganized attachment style because intimacy can feel scary or frightening. Of course, not everyone fits neatly into one of these categories.

Most people land somewhere along a continuum from secure to insecure. And, if more on the insecure side, you’re on a continuum from anxious to avoidant.

But history doesn’t have to be destiny when it comes to attachment styles. People can change how they are in relationships when they learn to listen and be emotionally responsive to others. And just as important, they must allow people to listen and be emotionally responsive to them — that is, they must form secure attachments. More often, though, people spend

their lives seeking or creating circumstances that reproduce what they knew in childhood. They selectively listen to people who sound like who they heard first and, thus, reinforce old neural pathways. They are trying to sync in a way that feels familiar — like following old ruts in a dirt road.”

“Our culture makes it hard for people to listen even in the best of circumstances. But it’s even tougher for participants in some of these programs, many of whom experienced abuse or neglect when they were growing up. Given they expect criticism or insult, they’ve developed a resistance to listening, either by tuning out or talking over people, without realizing it. And yet, these programs have had tremendous success.”

How To Listen

To listen well is to figure out what’s on someone’s mind and demonstrate that you care enough to want to know.

It’s what we all crave; to be understood as a person with thoughts, emotions, and intentions that are unique and valuable and deserving of attention. Listening is not about teaching, shaping, critiquing, appraising, or showing how it should be done (“Here, let me show you.”

“Don’t be shy.” “That’s awesome!” “Smile for Daddy.”). Listening is about the experience of being experienced. It’s when someone takes an interest in who you are and what you are doing. The lack of being known and accepted in this way leads to feelings of inadequacy and emptiness. What makes us feel most lonely and isolated in life is less often the result of a devastating traumatic event than the accumulation of occasions when nothing happened but something profitably could have. It’s the missed opportunity to connect when you weren’t listening or someone wasn’t really listening to you.”

“Evolution gave us eyelids so we can close our eyes but no corresponding structure to close off our ears. It suggests listening is essential to our survival.”

“Studies show that children and adults who are securely attached tend to be more curious and open to new information than people who are not. It’s another tenet of attachment theory that if you have someone in your life who listens to you and who you feel connected to, then the safer you feel stepping out in the world and interacting with others. You know you will be okay if you hear something or find out things that upset you because you have someone, somewhere, you can confide in and who will relieve your distress. It’s called having a secure base, and it’s a bulwark against loneliness.”

“The most valuable lesson I’ve learned as a journalist is that everybody is interesting if you ask the right questions. If someone is dull or uninteresting, it’s on you. Researchers at the University of Utah found that when talking to inattentive listeners, speakers remembered less information and were less articulate in the information they conveyed. Conversely, they found that attentive listeners elicited more information, relevant detail, and elaboration from speakers, even when the listeners didn’t ask any questions. So if you’re barely listening to someone because you think that person is boring or not worth your time, you will actually make it so.

Think about a time when you were trying to tell a story to someone who was obviously uninterested; maybe they were sighing or their eyes were roaming around the room. What happened? Your pacing faltered, you left out details, or maybe you started babbling irrelevant information or overshared in an effort to regain their attention. Eventually, you probably trailed off while the other person smiled blandly or nodded absently. You also probably walked away from the encounter with a distinct dislike for that person.”

“Behavioral science researchers at the University of Chicago ran a series of experiments involving hundreds of bus and train commuters whom they assigned to one of three conditions: 1) sit in solitude, 2) engage with a stranger, or 3) act as they normally would on their commutes.

While the study participants for the most part expected to be least happy and least productive if they had to engage with a stranger, the researchers found the opposite was true. The people who talked to strangers were the happiest following their commutes and didn’t feel like it prevented them from doing work they would have otherwise done. And whereas the study participants were convinced other people wouldn’t want to talk to them and the exchange would be uncomfortable, none of them reported being rebuffed or insulted.”

“Human beings detest uncertainty in general, and in social situations in particular. It’s a survival mechanism residing in our primitive brains that whispers, “Keep doing what you’ve been doing because it hasn’t killed you yet.””

“Listening for things you have in common and gradually building rapport is the way to engage with anyone. Interrogation doesn’t work with terrorists, so why would it work when you meet someone at a social gathering? Peppering people with appraising and personal questions like “What do you do for a living?” or “What part of town do you live in?” or “What school did you go to?” or “Are you married?” is interrogating. You’re not trying to get to know them. You’re sizing them up. It makes people reflexively defensive and will likely shift the conversation into a superficial and less-than-illuminating résumé recitation or self-promoting elevator pitch.

In the Chicago commuter study, the participants who engaged with strangers were told to try to make a connection. They were instructed to find out something interesting about the other person and to share something about themselves. It was a give-and-take. Had they aggressively started asking personal questions about the person’s employment, education, and family, it wouldn’t have gone so well. Instead, they might have started out by talking about the commute or maybe noticing someone’s Chicago Cubs ball cap, asking if the person ever goes to games — listening and letting the conversation build organically. By being genuinely curious, courteous, and attentive, the study’s participants discovered how correspondingly gracious-and ultimately, interesting- their fellow commuters could be.”

“While you might think you’d be more likely to listen to a loved one than a stranger, in fact, the opposite is often true.

“People in long-term relationships tend to lose their curiosity for each other. Not necessarily in an unkind way; they just become convinced they know each other better than they do. They don’t listen because they think they already know what the other person will say.

Coche gave the example of spouses who answer questions or make decisions for each other. They might also give gifts that miss the mark, resulting in disappointment and hurt feelings. Parents can make the same sorts of mistakes, assuming they know what their children like or don’t like and what they would or would not do. We actually all tend to make assumptions when it comes to those we love. It’s called the closeness-communication bias. As wonderful as intimacy and familiarity are, they make us complacent, leading us to overestimate our ability to read those closest to us.

This was demonstrated by researchers at Williams College and the University of Chicago who, in an experimental setup similar to a parlor game, had two married couples, who didn’t know each other, sit in chairs arranged in a circle facing away from each other. Each participant, in turn, was instructed to say phrases used in everyday conversation that could have multiple meanings. The participants’ spouses said what they thought their partners meant, and then the strangers gave their best guesses. A sample statement was something like “You look different today,” which could mean “You look terrible,” or “See, I do notice your looks,” or “Hey, I like the new look!” or “Hmm, I feel like something is different, but I can’t put my finger on it.” While participants were convinced their spouses would understand them better than strangers, they did no better than strangers, and sometimes worse.

In a similar experiment, the researchers showed that close friends also overestimated how well they grasped each other’s meaning. Pairing subjects with a close friend and then a stranger, the researchers had the subjects direct one another to take items from a large box divided into grid-like compartments in which there were various objects with the same names-for example, a computer mouse and stuffed furry mouse. Some of the cubbies were visible to only one person while others were visible to both. The friends’ intimacy created an illusion of like-mindedness, making them more likely to assume their friends could see the same things they did. They were less likely to make that mistake with strangers — that is, they were more likely to immediately reach for the correct mouse, the one visible to both people, when directed by the stranger.

“The understanding, ‘What I know is different from what you know’ is essential for effective communication to occur,” said Kenneth Savitsky, professor of psychology at Williams College and lead author of the study. “It is necessary for giving directions, for teaching a class, or for ordinary conversation. But that insight can be elusive when the ‘you’ in question is a close friend or spouse.

It’s as if once you feel a connection with someone, you assume it will always be so. The sum of daily interactions and activities continually shapes us and adds nuance to our under standing of the world so that no one is the same as yesterday nor will today’s self be identical to tomorrow’s. Opinions, attitudes, and beliefs change. So it doesn’t matter how long you have known or how well you think you know people; if you stop listening, you will eventually lose your grasp of who they are and how to relate to them.

Relying on the past to understand someone in the present is doomed to failure. The French writer André Maurois wrote, happy marriage is a long conversation that always seems too short.” How long would you want to stay with someone who insisted on treating you as if you were the same person you were the day you two met? This is true not just in romantic relationships but in all relationships. Even toddlers object to being treated like the infants they were just months earlier. Offer a two-year-old a helping hand with something they’ve already learned how to do and you’ll likely get an exasperated, “I do it!” Listening is how we stay connected to one another as the pages turn in our lives.”

“An exception might be friends with whom you feel like you can pick up right where you left off even though you haven’t talked to them for ages. According to Dunbar, these are usually friendships forged through extensive and deep listening at some point in your life, usually during an emotionally wrought time, like during college or early adulthood, or maybe during a personal crisis like an illness or divorce. It’s almost as if you have banked a lot of listening that you can draw on later to help you understand and relate to that person even after significant time apart. Put another way, having listened well and often to someone in the past makes it easier to get back on the same wavelength when you get out of sync, perhaps due to physical separation or following a time of emotional distance caused by an argument.”

“In an in-depth study of a cohort of thirty-eight graduate students and confirmed in a larger online survey of two thousand people representative of all Americans, Harvard sociologist Mario Luis Small found that slightly more than half the time, people confided their most pressing and worrisome concerns to people with whom they had weaker ties, even people they encountered by chance, rather than to those they had previously said were closest to them-like a spouse, family member, or dear friend. In some cases, the subjects actively m avoided telling the people in their innermost circle because they feared unkindness, judgment, blowback, or drama. It raises questions of why we choose the listeners we do.”

“Bishop Flores believes that expecting complete understanding is the root of many troubled relationships. “We all long to express ourselves to another, but if we think there will be the perfect person who will be able to receive it all, we will be disappointed,” he said. “Not that we shouldn’t always try to communicate and to give each other the gift of listening, for that is love, even if we aren’t always able to understand.”

“It’s a reflexive mental tendency that gives you the illusion of understanding and, hence, lessens your curiosity and motivation to listen. Without realizing it, you start listening selectively, hearing only what fits your preconceived notions. Or you might even behave in ways that get me to confirm your expectations.”

“Say a friend tells you that he just lost his job, which he says is okay because he never really liked his boss and the commute has been a killer and just today it took him an hour and a half to drive twenty miles to the office. He was always getting home late and eating dinner standing up in the kitchen because his wife eats with the kids and never waits for him. He chokes up when he says he doesn’t know how he’s going to tell his family he lost his job. And anyway, he says, clearing his throat, he has this big fishing vacation in Mexico planned and now he’ll probably have to cancel.

Of course, it depends on how well you know the guy and the circumstances, but, generally, responses like “I’m sorry you lost your job” or “You’ll find another job soon” come off as trite and dismissive. “You’re better off not having that crummy job” also misses the point. And saying, “You think that’s bad? When I got laid off…” makes it all about you. But a good listener, noticing when the guy’s voice caught and sensitive to what might be troubling him the most at that moment, might say something more along the lines of: “So now you have to break the news to your family? That’s rough. How do you think they are going to react?”

Research by Graham Bodie, a professor of integrated marketing communication at the University of Mississippi, shows that people are more likely to feel understood if a listener responds not by nodding, parroting, or paraphrasing but by giving descriptive and evaluative information. Contrary to the idea that effective listening is some sort of passive exercise, Bodie’s work reveals it requires interpretation and interplay. Your dog can “listen” to you. Siri or Alexa can “listen” to you. But ultimately, talking to your dog, Siri, or Alexa will prove unsatisfying because they won’t respond in a thoughtful, feeling way, which is the measure of a good listener.

“People want the sense you get why they are telling you the story, what it means to them, not so much that you know the details of the story,” Bodie told me. Trouble is, he and his colleagues have consistently found that most people are really bad at this. Their data suggests that listeners’ responses are emotionally attuned to what speakers are saying less than 5 percent of the time, making your dog look pretty good by comparison.

So it’s not that your friend lost his job that’s significant but how it’s impacting him emotionally. Sleuthing that out is the art of listening, particularly when people tend to bombard you with a lot of ancillary information (the commute, the fishing trip, and the detail about his wife). You are the detective, always asking, “Why is this person telling me this?” understanding that speakers sometimes may not know the answer themselves. Good listeners help speakers figure that out by asking questions and encouraging elaboration. You know you’ve succeeded as a listener when, after you respond, the other person says something like “Yes, exactly!” or “You totally get it!””

“What if a coworker tells you her office is moving to another floor? The facts are her office will no longer be down the hall but on another floor. But did she say it with a subtle sigh or breathy excitement? Did she massage her temples, roll her eyes, or raise her eyebrows? Did she say she was moving to another “damn floor”? What does moving to another floor mean to her? Why is she letting you know?”

“A good listener, by picking up on tonal and nonverbal cues and asking a clarifying question or two, can respond more sensitively and specifically, such as offering to reschedule a meeting you had planned if she’s stressed or, picking up on her romantic interest, telling her you’re bummed you won’t see her as much or not, if the feeling isn’t mutual.

The world is easier to navigate if you remember that people are governed by emotions, acting more often out of jealousy, pride, shame, desire, fear, or vanity than dispassionate logic. We act and react because we feel something. To discount this and listen superficially — or not at all — is to operate at a serious disadvantage. If people seem simple and devoid of feeling, that only means you don’t know them well enough. J. Pierpont Morgan said, “A man always has two reasons for what he does — a good one, and the real one.” Listening helps you understand people’s mind-sets and motivations, which is essential in building cooperative and productive relationships as well as knowing which relationships you’re better off avoiding.”

“Criminologists have found that mass shooters are typically not psychotic but depressed and lonely, motivated most often by a desire for revenge. The Trace, a journalism nonprofit dedicated to tracking gun violence, found that a striking commonality among mass murderers is a profound alienation from society. This was true whether the assailant was a disgruntled employee, estranged spouse, troubled teenager, failed business owner, jihadist, or traumatized veteran. They shared a sense that no one listened to or understood them, and they in turn ceased to listen to anyone, moved only by the often warped things they told themselves.”

“When Noesner travels for work, he makes a habit of having dinner at the hotel bar in the evenings. “I look at others at the bar and tell myself, ‘I’m going to engage this person and find out their story,” he said. “It’s amazing what you can learn when you are totally focused on someone.” For example, a salesman he met whose hobby was tightrope walking. “That was a frigging fascinating conversation,” Noesner said, recalling that the guy said he practiced walking on a wire strung between two trees in his backyard and that he overcame his fear of falling by starting out with elaborate padding and harnesses.

Much like the commuters in the University of Chicago study who were not rebuffed when they tried to engage with strangers, Noesner doesn’t recall anyone who wasn’t eager to talk to him.”

When you leave a conversation, ask yourself, What did I just learn about that person? What was most concerning to that person today? How did that person feel about what we were talking about? If you can’t answer those questions, you weren’t listening well.”


“Your brief exit from the conversation was caused by the speech-thought differential, which refers to the fact that we can think a lot faster than someone can talk. The average person talks at around 120–150 words per minute, which takes up a tiny fraction of our mental bandwidth powered by some eighty- six billion brain cells. So we wander in our excess cognitive capacity, thinking about a multitude of other things, which keeps us from focusing on the speaker’s narrative. When someone else talks, we take mental side trips. We check out momentarily to wonder if we have spinach in our teeth.”

“The idea that higher intelligence makes you better able to avoid these mental side trips is false. In fact, smart people are often worse listeners because they come up with more alternative things to think about and are more likely to assume that they already know what the person is going to say. People with higher IQs also tend to be more neurotic and self-conscious, which means worry and anxiety are more likely to hijack their attention.

Introverts, because they are quieter, are often thought to be better listeners. But this, too, is false. Listening can be particularly challenging for introverts because they have so much busyness going on in their own heads that it’s hard to make room for additional input. Because they tend to be sensitive, they may also reach saturation sooner. Listening can feel like an onslaught, making it difficult to continue listening, particularly when the speech-thought differential gives their minds occasion to drift.”

“According to Nichols, to be a good listener means using your available bandwidth not to take mental side trips but rather to double down on your efforts to understand and intuit what someone is saying. He said listening well is a matter of continually asking yourself if people’s messages are valid and what their motivations are for telling you whatever they are telling you.”

“Nichols found that immediately following a short talk, most people missed at least half of what was said, no matter how well they thought they were listening. Two months later, most people had retained only 25 percent. To beat those averages, it’s helpful to think of listening as similar to meditation. You make yourself aware of and acknowledge distractions, then return to focus. But instead of focusing on your breathing or an image, you return your attention to the speaker.”

“She told me that listening with her “whole self” made her feel vulnerable. “I think it’s an issue of trusting that you can be imperfect in the conversation,” she said. “Listening is a matter of you deciding you don’t need to worry what to say next,” which then allows “someone else’s opinions and ideas to get past your border defenses.”

The irony is that by remaining defensive and not listening fully, you actually increase your chances of responding inappropriately or insensitively. The more you think about the right thing to say, the more you miss, and the more likely it is that you’ll say the wrong thing when it’s your turn. Just as Nichols’s debate students were more persuasive when they listened, a better response will come to you when you have taken in all that the other person has to say. Then, pause if you need to after the other person concludes to think about what you want to say. While we fear silences almost as much as saying the wrong thing (more about that later), a pause following someone’s comments can actually work to your advantage, as it’s a sign of attentiveness.

“A career diplomat in Washington, D.C., told me he married his wife because “she actually pauses a couple of beats after I say something. I can tell she’s thinking about what I said.” He then added, “This wife is my second go-round. The first one didn’t take because there wasn’t much listening going on.” It’s also worth pointing out that it’s okay to say, “I don’t know what to say,” when you don’t. You can also say, “I’d like to think about that,” which conveys that you honor what the other person said by taking time to think about it, while, at the same time, honoring that part of you that is uncertain and needs time to process.

Always having a ready bon mot may not be the best way to connect with people anyway. In fact, according to the tenets of self-psychology, committing a faux pas creates an opportunity to fix it, which strengthens your tie to the other person.

First advanced by Austrian psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut in the 1960s but more widely embraced in the past ten years, self-psychology holds that repaired rifts are the fabric of relationships rather than patches on them. Indeed, if you think about the people whom you trust and feel closest to in your life, they are undoubtedly the ones who have come back after a flub and made it right.

The upshot is that worrying about what to say next works against you. Your responses will be better, your connections will be stronger, and you’ll be more at ease if you free up your mind to listen. It also makes conversations that much more interesting because you are able to take in more information. Not only are you listening to the words, but you’re also using your leftover brainpower to notice the speaker’s body m language and inflection as well as to consider the context and motivation.

Take first introductions. We often miss what people are saying — including their names — because we are distracted sizing them up, thinking about how we are coming across and what we are going to say. Not so when you meet a dog, which is why you can more easily remember a dog’s name than its owner’s. But if you marshal your mental resources so you fully listen to someone’s opening gambit and nonverbal presentation, it’s enormously interesting and can quickly clue you in to that person’s insecurities and values. And you will be more likely to remember names.”

“I realized how eager he was to impress by the way he crowbarred into the conversation celebrities he knew and awards he had received. His disdain for me seemed preemptive, lest I disapprove of him first. As he talked more about his life and interests, what came through was a melancholy and an insecurity that he was worthy of his acclaim. Had I been distracted, ruminating on his rudeness, I would have missed this. The conversation consisted of him repeatedly opening the door to his interior world a tiny crack and then slamming it in my face with a backhanded remark. While I can’t say I ended up liking him, I was able to develop a degree of understanding and even sympathy.”

Negotiation and Disagreement

“In Gillien Todd’s course on negotiation at Harvard Law School she tells her students to always be mindful of their internal stances, or attitudes, while listening. She tells them that if they believe the other person has nothing to offer, is not worth their time, or is the enemy or inferior or dull, then no matter how much they nod, paraphrase, or look someone in the eye, it will come off as false, and their negotiations will be unsuccessful. “Your internal stance should be one of curiosity,” Todd instructs her students. Which means they must ask questions out of curiosity as opposed to questioning to prove a point, set a trap, change someone’s mind, or to make the other person look foolish.”

“Neuroscientists at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles recruited subjects with staunch political positions and, using an fMRI scanner, looked at their brain activity when their belief were challenged. Parts of their brains lit up as if they were being chased by a bear. And when we are in this fight, flight, or freeze mode, it’s incredibly hard to listen. (“So tell me, Mr. Bear, why are you chasing me?”)”

“In 2018, Maine senator Susan Collins presented a colorful, beaded talking stick to colleagues assembled in her office for bipartisan budget negotiations, hoping to inject some civility into the proceedings. Talking sticks are an indigenous tribal tradition in North America and Africa. Only the holder of the stick can speak

while everyone else listens. But in Collins’s office, it wasn’t long before one senator had hurled the stick at another senator, chipping a glass elephant on her shelf.”

At the moment you feel you are going to react with hostility toward those who disagree with you, take a breath and ask them a question, not to expose flawed logic but to truly expand your understanding of where they are coming from.”

“When engaged in any kind of dispute, the father of listening studies, Ralph Nichols, advised listening for evidence that you might be wrong rather than listening to poke holes in the other person’s argument, much less plugging your ears or cutting someone out of your life entirely. It requires a certain generosity of spirit, but if you remain open to the possibility that you might be wrong, or at least not entirely right, you’ll get far more out of the conversation.

This approach is backed up by science. Engaging higher-order thinking is what tamps down activity in your amygdala, one of two almond-shaped structures in the primitive part of the brain that primes us to react (racing pulse, tense muscles, and dilated pupils) when we perceive a threat. The amygdala is what makes you instinctively jump when you see a snake or reflexively duck out of the way if someone hurls something at you. But it’s also what propels people into a blind rage when someone cuts m them off in traffic or makes someone tweet a bit of vitriol so out of proportion, it defies reason.

Research shows there is an inverse relationship between amygdala activity and activity in areas of the brain involved in careful listening. If one of these brain regions is hot, the other is not. Amygdala activation clouds judgment, rendering us unthinking and irrational. When trial lawyers put clients through grueling mock cross-examinations, they are essentially training their clients’ amygdalae to tone it down, so during the actual trial they won’t get provoked into giving flustered or antagonistic answers that would harm their cases.

Interestingly, people with an overactive amygdala are more apt to suffer from anxiety and depression, according to the research of Ahmad Hariri, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. His lab studies the amygdala and how individuals may vary in the degree to which their amygdalae get goosed during times of stress. For example, children who have so-called helicopter parents tend to have an overactive amygdalae when faced with adversity. They have an exaggerated sense of threat likely because Mom and Dad have always run interference for them. Also notable is the discovery that people with autism have an excess of neurons in their amygdalae during childhood — making them overreactive — and then too few neurons when they are adults-often making them underreactive, or flat, in affect.”

“”Other people now represent the biggest threat to our well-being, and that manifests in these social-related anxieties.” This explains why people can get in vein-popping, eyes-pulging shouting matches when they disagree, rather than listening to each other. In the moment, the primitive brain interprets a difference of opinion as being abandoned by the tribe, alone and unprotected, so outrage and fear take over.”

Focus Groups

“Robert Merton, a sociologist at Columbia University, was hired by the United States Office of War Information in the 1940s to research propaganda, specifically to find out what anti-Nazi messaging would be most effective on the American people. His approach was the so-called focused interview, where he convened a small group and asked particular, probing questions and noted the responses. It proved spectacularly more effective than the previous approach, which was to bring in much larger groups of people and let them push green (like) or red (don’t like) buttons in response to more general questions.

For example, while it was thought that portraying the Nazis as bloodthirsty savages would make people want to go to war, the opposite was true. People pushed the red button. Through focused interviews, Merton was able to find out it was because people worried our boys would be slaughtered by the Nazi heathens. What he found would really rally the public was mes- saging that emphasized America’s values such as honor, democracy, and rationality.

It wasn’t long before corporate America and advertisers got wind of Merton’s magic. One of the earliest examples of how focus groups shaped a product is Betty Crocker cake mixes, which originally contained powdered egg. All you had to do was add water. But the mixes weren’t catching on with American housewives. A focus group in the 1950s found out why-the women said they felt guilty because the mixes were too easy. So, General Mills, which owned the Betty Crocker brand reformulated its mixes, leaving out eggs to give homemakers more of a role in the baking process. Having to crack some eggs as well as add water made it feel like more of an honest effort. It didn’t hurt that the fresh eggs made the cake fluffier, but still, it took listening to consumers in a focus group to bring about the change.

In no time, focus groups came to determine the look, shape, and content of many of the products on store shelves. They still have an enormous influence on product development, how services are delivered, and what television shows and movies we get to watch. Political candidates use focus groups to decide what issues to champion and how to part their hair.

Today, though, decisions are increasingly made based on big data. The trend has been away from qualitative research methodologies like focus groups and toward more quantitative approaches, such as online analytics, social media monitoring, and telecom tracking. This is in part because of the explosion of available online and consumer data from both public and private sources. But it’s also because focus groups are expensive, typically costing $5,000-$9,000 per group. Moreover, it’s getting harder to recruit so-called virgin focus group participants. Focus groups have become so ubiquitous that there are individuals who have made a side hustle out of giving their opinions, m getting paid $50-$100 for two hours of opining (plus free granola bars and peanut M&Ms).”

“One of her greatest talents is asking questions that don’t rob people of their stories. For example, when moderating a focus group for a grocery store chain that wanted to find out what motivates people to shop late at night, she didn’t ask participants what would seem like the most obvious questions: “Do you shop late at night because you didn’t get around to it during the day?” “Is it because stores are less crowded at night?” “Do you like to shop late because that’s when stores restock their shelves?” All are logical reasons to shop at night and likely would have gotten affirmative responses had she asked.

Nor did Naomi simply ask why they shopped late at night because, she told me, “Why?” tends to make people defensive — like they have to justify themselves. Instead, Naomi turned her question into an invitation: “Tell me about the last time you went to the store after 11:00 p.m.” A quiet, unassuming woman who had said little up to that point raised her hand. “I had just smoked a joint and was looking for a ménage à trois — me, Ben, and Jerry,” she said. Insights like that are why people hire Naomi.”

“Naomi has what I have come to recognize as the listener demeanor. By that, I mean she’s exceptionally calm and has an expression that transmits interest and acceptance. Her eyes don’t dart, her fingers don’t fidget, and her body seems always relaxed and open. I spent several hours interviewing her and observing her interactions with others, and not once did I see her cross her legs or arms. When she was with someone, she never gave the slightest indication m she was on a schedule or there was somewhere else she’d rather be. My most vivid image of Naomi is her sitting with her elbows m bent in front of her on the table, cheeks resting in her hands, eyes wide, listening like a rapt teenager.”

Listening at Work

“After three years of collecting data, the researchers finally reached some conclusions about what made for cohesive and effective teams. What they found was that the most productive teams were the ones where members spoke in roughly the same proportion, known as “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.” The best teams also had higher “average social sensitivity,” which means they were good at intuiting one another’s feelings based on things like tone of voice, facial expressions, and other nonverbal cues.

In other words, Google found out that successful teams listened to one another. Members took turns, heard one another out, and paid attention to nonverbal cues to pick up on unspoken thoughts and feelings. This led to responses that were more considerate and on point. It also created an atmosphere of so-called psychological safety, where people were more likely to share information and ideas without fear of being talked over or dismissed.”


“Research indicates that people who have a higher degree of self-awareness, and a related concept known as self-monitoring, are better listeners in part because they know the sorts of things that lead them to jump to the wrong conclusions and thus are less likely to do so. Cultivating self-awareness is a matter of paying attention to your emotions while in conversation and recognizing when your fears and sensitivities — or perhaps your desires and dreams — hijack your ability to listen well.

“We often miss lies, as well as truths, because when someone says something that doesn’t make sense, most of the time, we don’t stop the conversation and say, “Wait. Back up. I don’t understand.” In unedited versions of Fresh Air interviews, you frequently hear Terry Gross stopping her guests to get them to explain what they meant. But in everyday conversations, people more often shrug and move on because it doesn’t seem worth the trouble or they think they can guess what the other person meant. People are also reluctant to ask for clarification lest they appear dense.”

When early attachments are secure-if you had parents or caregivers who listened and attended to your wants and needs- then you develop an inner voice that is, as Steele put it, “friendlier.”

“They have to be truly curious questions meant to elicit more information and not subtly impose your own opinion — open-ended questions like “What was your reaction?” not “Didn’t that piss you off?” The goal is to understand the speaker’s point of view, not to sway it.

Fill-in-the-blank questions are useful in this respect. “You and Roger got in a fight because…?” That way, it’s like you’re handing off a baton, allowing the speaker to go in whatever direction the person wants. Try to avoid asking about incidental details that knock people off their train of thought and feeling state: “Were you and Roger arguing at the coffee shop on Fifty-fifth Street or Sixty-seventh Street?” Where they were, what time, what they ordered — none of it matters as much as what happened and how it felt.

“Because people like to appear knowledgeable, they like to ask questions that suggest they already know the answer. Or they frame questions in ways that prompt the answers they want. Good questions don’t begin with: “Don’t you think…?” “Isn’t it true…?” “Wouldn’t you agree…?” And good questions definitely don’t end with “right?” These are actually camouflaged shift responses and will likely lead others to give incomplete or less-than-honest answers that fit the questioner’s opinions and expectations.”

“Grilling them about what happened is interrogating. Telling them they shouldn’t feel how they feel is minimizing. And changing the subject is just maddening. Kids, like all of us, just want to be heard. Try instead, “Have you always felt this way?” or “What would quitting mean?” Look at it as an invitation to have a conversation, not as something to be fixed or get upset about.”

“Whether it’s your child, romantic partner, friend, colleague, or employee who comes to you with a personal problem, if you ask open and honest questions and listen attentively to the answers, it communicates, “I’m interested in hearing more from you,” and “Your feelings are valid.” If you jump in to fix, advise, correct, or distract, you are communicating that the other person doesn’t have the ability to handle the situation: “You’re not going to get this without me.” And you’re also telling them, “There’s no room for honest emotion in our relationship.” By questioning and listening carefully to the answers, the other person might in return begin to ask you questions so they can benefit from your experience. And that’s okay, too. In this way, you have earned the right to reflect on your own approaches to problems and offer counsel or consolation. And it also ensures the stories and sentiments you share are truly relevant and helpful.”

People who make an effort to listen — and respond in ways that support rather than shift the conversation — end up collecting stories the way other people might collect stamps, shells, or coins. The result is they tend to have something interesting to contribute to almost any discussion. The best raconteurs and most interesting conversationalists I have ever met are the most agile questioners and attentive listeners. The exceptional listeners highlighted in this book, named and unnamed, kept me enthralled with their stories. It’s in part because they’ve collected so much material but also, they seemed to have consciously or subconsciously learned the tones, inflections, cadences, pauses, and turns of phrase that rivet your attention.”

“Researchers are just now discovering that specialized clusters of neurons in the brain are responsible for detecting those slight changes in pitch and tone. The more practiced a listener you are, the better these neurons get at perceiving the kinds of sonic variations that carry the emotional content, and much of the meaning, of what people say. For example, musicians, whose art depends on detecting differences in pitch and tone, more readily pick up on vocal expressions of emotion than nonmusicians, lending some truth to the notion that musicians tend to be more sensitive souls. Perhaps not surprisingly, musicians unfamiliar with Mandarin Chinese also tend to be better than non- musicians at discerning the language’s subtle tonal differences, which can change the entire meaning of a word in addition to signaling emotion.”

“This may have implications for which ear you want to incline toward a speaker or which ear you use to talk on the phone. For talking to your boss, tilt your head to the left so your right ear is up. If you’re having trouble figuring out whether your romantic partner is upset, switch your phone to the left ear.

“Naomi Henderson, the focus group moderator, told me she’s noticed that when people tilt their heads to the right so their left ear is up, it usually signals that they are tapping into more emotional parts of themselves, which is the kind of information that is most valuable to her clients. So when she sees someone cock their head right, lifting that left ear, it prompts her to zero in and inquire what memories or images the product or issue they were discussing brought to mind. She discovered this through experience rather than a scientific experiment, but it makes sense given the left ear is usually the more emotional ear.

“Fifteen percent of Americans, around 48 million people, have hearing loss. Sixty-five percent of them are under age sixty-five. As a result, hearing loss is viewed as a major public health issue, ranking as the third most common chronic physical condition after high blood pressure and arthritis.

Many people aren’t aware that they are losing their hearing until it’s severe. This is because when you have light to moderate hearing loss, your brain takes up the slack by filling in the words you don’t hear in conversations. The problem is that your brain is not always accurate. In fact, it often isn’t. Your brain goes with what it expects to hear rather than what is actually said or sometimes hears things when nothing is said at all. As far back as the 1890s, researchers have demonstrated humans’ susceptibility to auditory hallucinations by pairing a tone with some sort of stimulus, such as a pulse of light. Before long, subjects start to “hear” the tone when only the light flashes.”

“While some mishearings can be humorous, hearing loss, in the long run, leads to a litany of poor emotional and social outcomes, including, but not limited to:

• irritability, negativism, anger, fatigue, tension, stress, and depression

• avoidance or withdrawal from social situations

• social rejection and loneliness

• reduced job performance and earning power

• diminished psychological and overall health

These symptoms are not so much the result of hearing loss per se but the resulting inability to connect with people. so it’s enormously important to protect your hearing by keeping volume on sound systems in a safe range (no more than 60 percent of maximum volume) and wearing earplugs when in noisy environments. It’s also a good idea to get your ears checked if you suspect your listening problems have a m m physiological component. Earwax buildup all by itself can cause hearing loss. You’d be surprised m how a good ear cleaning once or twice a year by an otolaryngologist can improve your hearing.

It’s considered impolite and overbearing in Finland to be too quick to jump in when someone finishes a thought, much less to interrupt. Silences are not only okay there, they are basic decorum. But researchers have also suggested that people in quieter cultures may have greater fear of losing face or being humiliated, which makes them more reluctant to speak.

“To be a good listener is to accept pauses and silences because filling them too soon, much less preemptively, prevents the speaker from communicating what they are perhaps struggling to say. It quashes elaboration and prevents real issues from coming to the surface. Just wait. Give the other person a chance to pick up where they left off.”

“British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has studied gossip in conjunction with his work on friendship, and he told me that despite the widely held view that gossip is mostly malicious, only 3–4 percent of it is truly mean-spirited. “Gossip is hanging over the yard fence, sitting on the stoop, rocking in the rocking chair,” he said.”

“Listening is not just something you should do when someone else is talking; it’s also what you should do while you are talking. Is the other person indicating any real interest in hearing more about your kid’s oboe recital? Did the other person wince when you started talking about politics? Was that a sigh of relief you heard when you said, “To make a long story short…”? If you’re not good at reading other people’s reactions as you speak, then just ask them. Check in. “Have I lost you?” “Did I overstep?” “What do you think?” “Are you still with me?” “Had enough?” “Am I boring you?” “Make sense?” “Too much?””

“”The best friendships are those where you are able to immediately pick up the conversation where you left off because the person’s words have remained with you.” Indeed, one of the most gratifying things you can say to another person is: “I’ve been thinking about what you said.” Likewise, friends are people who can connect what you are saying in the moment to things you’ve said in the past to help you work through problems or clarify your thinking or, in some cases, just make you laugh at the association.”



I read non-fiction and take copious notes. Currently traveling around the world for a few years, follow my journey at

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