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Book Freak Issue #88: How to Be a Better Listener

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Book Freak

June 14 · Issue #88 · View online

Short pieces of advice from books


Kate Murphy explains why we’re not listening, what it’s doing to us, and how we can reverse the trend. She makes accessible the psychology, neuroscience, and sociology of listening while also introducing us to some of the best listeners out there (including a CIA agent, focus group moderator, bartender, radio producer, and top furniture salesman). Equal parts cultural observation, scientific exploration, and rousing call to action that’s full of practical advice, You’re Not Listening is to listening what Susan Cain’s Quiet was to introversion.

Everybody is interesting
“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.”
Have an open mind while listening
“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.”
Respond to an emotional statement with a question
“Say your son or daughter jumps into the car after soccer practice and says, “I hate it. I’m never going back. I quit.” This always strikes a nerve with parents who are likely to respond with: “You can’t quit. Where’s your team spirit?” or “Oh my God, what happened? I’m going to call the coach!” or “Are you hungry? Let’s go eat. You’ll feel better.” None of that is listening. 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.”
Form questions as invitations, not challenges
“When moderating a focus group for a grocery store chain that wanted to find out what motivates people to shop late at night, [Naomi] 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.’“
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