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'When someone's truly listening, you get this feeling where you're totally in sync' - author Kate Murphy

Tanya Sweeney listens intently as author Kate Murphy posits that our inability to tune in properly is a wide cultural malaise

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All ears: New York Times contributor Kate Murphy has pinpointed an uneasy truth in her new book

All ears: New York Times contributor Kate Murphy has pinpointed an uneasy truth in her new book

You're Not Listening by Kate Murphy

You're Not Listening by Kate Murphy

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All ears: New York Times contributor Kate Murphy has pinpointed an uneasy truth in her new book

Writing a book about the lost art of listening certainly has a way of changing up your conversations with other people. Just ask Kate Murphy, a New York Times contributor who has pinpointed an uneasy truth in her new book: we may be great at leading the conversations, but perhaps not so much being on the receiving end of them.

"I have noticed in doing interviews about the book that people are a little bit nervous [about not listening well]," Murphy laughs. "One journalist admitted that she thought he was given the assignment because he might be a bad listener, which was pretty honest of him. I've noticed, too, that even my own mother is different in conversations now. She's not as quick to give advice - she's more expansive in her questioning."

This is precisely the effect of reading Murphy's book, You're Not Listening: What You're Missing & Why It Matters. Once Murphy lifts the lid on the very idea, there's no going back. The reader starts to realise that perhaps they're not as great a conversationalist as they think they are.

Be honest, now: when was the last time you talked to someone and shifted the conversation back to you? When you're in conversation, do you often have your next conversational input lined up in your head? Are you constantly waiting for the other person to catch a breath so you can break into the conversation? Do you occasionally tune out and start thinking about the life admin that needs to be done when someone else is deep in soliloquy?

On the face of it, you might think that listening is so natural and commonplace a part of the human experience that we need barely acknowledge it.

And yet Murphy posits that our inability to listen properly is a wide cultural malaise. We pick up phones during meetings, we shout over each other, and on social media, we shape our personal narratives. We are constantly self-curating by talking about ourselves. We have befallen myriad distractions that interfere with meaningful social interactions.

We've been taught that leading the conversation is paramount; as Murphy observes, TED talks and commencement speeches are a signaller of success and status. And, if we are listening, we listen in a contrived, possibly self-serving way.

Part call to arms, part sociology tome, and part how-to manual, Murphy's book makes the bold claim that learning how to listen properly will transform our conversations, our relationships and our lives for the better.

Losing the art of listening well isn't necessarily our fault, though; science is not on our side here.

"It's because our brains miraculously think a lot faster than someone else can talk, and we have this excess cognitive capacity," explains Murphy. "We take these mental side-trips, thinking about what we need to get in the store, why this person put those shoes with that outfit. And then, you come back into the conversation, although you've missed out on all that this person says.

"And yet when someone's truly listening, you get this feeling where you're totally in sync - what happens is in your brain and their brain, the neural brainwaves actually sync up," she adds. "All these chemicals are released when we have this sense of connection."

It was through her own work as an interviewer that Murphy began to notice just how underrated and undervalued that listening had become in everyday conversation. Opening her book with an interview with the late neurologist Oliver Sacks, Murphy recalls how the two got so immersed in the conversation. It became one of her more memorable interviews, precisely because she gave him the space to veer off-topic, and into the personal.

"I started to get this sense with the people I was interviewing that it was rare to have someone listen to them," she explains. "They were so taken aback that they'd start to share these incredibly intimate details. Though they were always accomplished people with large networks around them, I got the sense they had no-one to tell this stuff to, and that they were somehow unburdening themselves. They'd usually say, 'thanks so much for listening', and then in the same breath, 'I'm so sorry for unloading on you', as if they were asking too much of me."

Duly inspired, Murphy spent two years researching her central thesis by immersing herself in neuroscience research, and interviewing dozens of people, often starting with the simple question: 'who listens to you?'

Murphy also spent time interviewing 'professional' listeners, from priests and bar staff to hairdressers and hostage negotiators. As if to prove her thesis, she formed meaningful bonds and became good friends with many of them.

"More than anything, they were exceptionally curious about finding the stories in other people. I really enjoyed talking with Naomi Henderson, the focus group moderator," admits Murphy. "She was extraordinary in her ability to draw information out of people and not impose her view on them. She just invited other people to tell their stories. Her line of questioning was more an invitation than an interrogation. She never used the word 'why', and it's interesting to find that starting a question with 'why' makes people defensive. 'Why' makes people feel as though they have to justify themselves.

"I think the simplest and easiest thing a person can do is to make it your goal in every conversation to find out something interesting about the other person," she adds. "Everyone is interesting, but make sure when you leave them you're able to say, 'what did I learn about that person?' Just remember what Calvin Coolidge said - no-one has ever listened their way out of a job."

'You're Not Listening: What You're Missing And Why It Matters' by Kate Murphy is published by Harvill Secker

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