How to be a good listener: my mission to learn the most important skill of all

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...

Istanbul, Jale Akbar, İnteraz - 25 January 2020, 13:38

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.


“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.


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.


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.


The Guardian