Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Wednesday, October 2, 2019: Maximum Shelf: You're Not Listening

Celadon Books: You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy

Celadon Books: You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy Celadon Books: You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy Celadon Books: Love to review books and receive early ARCs? Sign up for a chance to become a Celadon Books reviewer!

You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters

by Kate Murphy

In her fascinating book, You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why it Matters, longtime New York Times contributor Kate Murphy explains that these days, we are hyper-communicative: we post, we tweet, we update, we lean in. What we don't do very often, she contends, is actually listen to each other. We simply craft our own narratives, joining a cacophonous sea of voices sans audiences--or at least sans audiences who are paying attention. And it's a real problem.

Even when we do listen, it's halfhearted. "Take first introductions," Murphy writes. "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." Murphy compiles a compelling argument for reappraising how we cast our attention, to whom we pay it and why.

Bonding with Fido aside, there are many reasons it's important to listen. Perhaps most significant is intimacy and the relationship it invites: listening connects us to one another. Being better listeners, Murphy argues, can help us in myriad facets of our lives--lives that feel increasingly isolated. Ironically, this isolation is happening in the midst of unprecedented connection by way of social media. Murphy notes: "[Teenagers] are spending more time alone; blue in affect, as well as in appearance, thanks to the reflected glow of their devices. Studies indicate the greater the screen time, the greater the unhappiness." This irony is a rich source of reflection for Murphy, who invites readers to reconsider our priorities, how we define success and how we conceive of happiness. How much can we really be connecting if we are all just waiting for our turn to speak, or constantly checking our phones mid-conversation?

Murphy's writing reads conversationally, and her journalistic skills serve her well in her extensive research. For You're Not Listening, she observes focus groups, questions a CIA interrogator/polygrapher and an FBI hostage negotiator, interviews producers from NPR's Fresh Air and gleans wisdom from a former editor of New Yorker cartoons, a New York City hair stylist and a Catholic priest--among many more experts of various stripes. This diversity of sources results in a collage that helps us understand exactly what listening is and why it matters. If you've ever wondered just why Terry Gross's interviews can feel so fresh and meaningful, Murphy's insights may cast a light.

She's quick to find the humor in her subject. In her exploration of our selective listening and addiction to distraction, she traces human motivations and impulses with humor and awe: "A study by a British advertising buyer found that, on average, when people are at home, they switch between devices (phone, tablet, or laptop) twenty-one times per hour, all while the television is on in the background. So if you're still reading this book so many pages in, I'm ecstatic."

She also, delightfully, highlights how miscommunication gets in the way of conveying meaning. The English language is especially ripe with possibilities for misunderstanding, and Murphy has fun with language and linguistics: "The meaning of hard labor, good sex, not far, and spicy food all depends on who's saying it," she writes. "And, of course, euphemisms like monthly visitor, passed away, big-boned, and between opportunities abound, as people are always coming up with alternative and sometimes cryptic ways of saying what they don't want to come out and say."

Empathy is at the core of Murphy's exploration, as the bond that listening elicits is key. "I've been thinking about what you said," is a line Murphy probes, highlighting just why it's so meaningful to anyone who hears it. It's a sentence that conveys "I listened to you and what you said mattered to me." In essence, that's what this book says, and what listening to someone says: you matter to me. This gift of attention, of reception, is perhaps one of our most powerful to give. Murphy's message may not be loud, but it's clear. Let's listen up. --Katie Weed

Celadon Books, $26, hardcover, 288p., 9781250297198, January 7, 2020

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Kate Murphy: Snatches of Magic

Kate Murphy is a journalist based in Houston, Tex. A contributor to the New York Times, Murphy has also written for the Economist, Agence France-Presse and Texas Monthly. In You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters (Celadon, Jan 2020), Murphy turns her focus to focus itself, investigating our growing struggle to listen to, understand and connect with each other.

For you, what does it mean to be a good listener?

I put that same question to almost everyone I encountered while writing this book. And the response was usually a blank stare. They couldn't tell me what it meant to be a good listener. And yet, they could readily tell me what it meant to be a bad listener--things like interrupting, glancing down at a phone or abruptly changing the subject.  

The sad truth is people have more experience being talked over or ignored than being gratifyingly heard. What I've found through my experience as a journalist and now years of research, is listening is a skill. And like any skill, it degrades if you don't do it enough. Your listening ability needs to be cultivated and practiced.

So to answer your question, for me, to be a good listener means, first, wanting to be a good listener. With that motivation, the stories, science and practical tips in the book will help readers get better at attending to and understanding what others are saying, and even what they are not saying--which is what good listeners do.

How might being a good listener be similar to being a good reader?

Such a great question. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "'Tis the good reader that makes the good book." Likewise, 'tis the good listener who makes the good conversation. Just as you need to be curious, open and engaged to get the most out of what you're reading, you must have the same mindset when you're listening to have a satisfying conversation.

Also, the more people read, the more discerning and astute readers they become. The same can be said of avid listeners. The great listeners I profile in the book, including a CIA agent, focus group moderator, couples therapist and furniture salesman, were quicker to recognize patterns and themes in conversation, were more attuned to subtext and were better judges of speakers' characters.

Dialogue matters. You write, "studies have found that the voice-sensitive areas of the auditory cortex are activated more when reading direct versus indirect speech--that is, your brain reacts as if it's hearing an actual person speak when you read: 'He said, "I'm in love with her,"' but not so much if you read: 'He said he was in love with her.'" Did that affect how you crafted You're Not Listening?

I can't honestly say I thought about direct versus indirect speech while writing the book. Nevertheless, the book is very much me speaking directly to readers. Hopefully, they will "hear" me as someone who is offering them a genuine gift. I listen for a living, and I know the richness and depth it's added to my life. But I'm an even better listener now, having learned from researching this book. And it's made my life and my relationships all the better.

You interviewed both a CIA interrogator/polygrapher and an FBI hostage negotiator. Given their unique abilities, did you ever feel like they had turned the tables on you--that you were the one being interviewed?

That's so funny. It was a bit of the battle of the listeners, particularly with the CIA agent, whom I now consider a very good friend. In the book, I quote him telling me, "We all have weaknesses, flaws, and vulnerabilities. I have them. You have them. But in this game, I've got to get to yours before you get to mine." Let me just say, he and I were well matched. I think we both learned things about ourselves from each other. That's one way you know you're in the company of a good listener.

Being better listeners can help us in so many facets of our lives, which--as you point out--likely feel increasingly isolated. What does listening have to do with loneliness?

When people glance at their phones, jump in too quickly with their opinions, or make assumptions, they prevent others' thoughts and emotions from being fully and authentically expressed. And it makes everyone involved hollow, emptier than they would be otherwise. 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. Only by listening can we ever begin to notice and know one another, develop empathy and form healthy relationships. It's also how we avoid ideological entrenchment, misunderstandings, alienation and regret.

A lovely moment you expand on is when a group of psychology grad students watch a video of a clinician working with a child and her mother. "Look," says the clinician, watching the little girl. "She has an idea!" This comment elicits new understanding from the mother, deemed a "snatch of magic" by a psychology professor you interview. How can listening give us "snatches of magic"?

I love that you picked up on that part. Because that's what this book is really about--"snatches of magic." Those times when you are with someone and the conversation flows effortlessly back and forth as both of you listen and recognize each other's ideas and feelings. It could be the start of a love affair, friendship, business partnership or just be a fleeting encounter with a stranger. But the underlying feelings of comity and connection are the same. And listening is what gets you there. Those "snatches of magic" are what make life meaningful and are fundamental to our happiness. As I say in the book, 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. --Katie Weed

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