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The Lost Art Of Listening


The skill we need the most is the one we are rapidly losing. The practice of hearing another person out has fallen into disuse in our shouty, polarised, dogmatic culture. But skills can be re-learned, especially when we have critical reflectors to help us.


Kate Murphy’s You’re Not Listening may be the book of 2020 if it can help re-connect again.


Here are twelve things I’ve picked out from it, among lots of pieces of wisdom.

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    1. If we show signs we are not listening to the other person, they will curtail their story.

Listening requires curiosity. Attentive listeners elicit more information and relevant detail. As Murphy, who works for the New York Times said: The most valuable lesson I have learned as a journalist is that everyone is interesting if you ask the right questions. To put it more negatively, pastoral care is not served if people feel they must hurry their story to an end to satisfy us.


  1. 2. People often disclose their deeper worries to the people they know less well.

The most enlivening conversations tend to be had with strangers, research tells us. Dopamine, the feel-good brain chemical, is released when we have chance encounters because our brains are wired to feel more alive in unfamiliar situations. That looks a lot like Jesus’ one to ones in John’s Gospel. But we also draw on our biases in dealing with strangers, which can inhibit conversation and care.


  1. 3. It takes much longer to speak than to think, so our minds race off when we are listening to someone.

The ‘bandwidth’ available when listening to someone needs to be fully used to concentrate, but we easily get diverted to think about unrelated things and miss half of what they are saying. We also get caught up in thinking what to say next, especially as we fear silences.


  1. 4. We should listen for evidence we might be wrong, not just for reasons to disagree with someone.

As Kate Murphy says: Good listeners have negative capability. They are more able to cope with contradictory ideas and grey areas. Good listeners know there is usually more to the story than first appears and are not so eager for tidy reasoning and immediate answers.


This is the root of creativity as it leads to new ways of thinking about things.


  1. 5. The ability to pick up intricate clues through intense listening is a deep skill

There is a complexity in listening linked to how we hear certain words and ideas. We need to be aware of how we might react in these situations as it is easy to jump to the wrong conclusion. As Murphy says: We incorrectly assume other people’s logic and motivations resemble our own. But, of course, they have different backstories and baggage.


  1. 6. We should be aware of our own inner voice and how it affects us

Our inner voices often echo those we heard in childhood, including in their tone. Listening to our inner voice is something many of us avoid because downtime brings us face to face with problems that need fixing. The more people we listen to, the more variety of inner voices we will cultivate.


  1. 7. Beware conversational narcissism

Looking for opportunities to turn the conversation round to us flattens connection. Where two do it in conversation it leads to each talking over the other. Open ended questions allows the other person to take control rather than us wresting it from them and allow for greater depth and self-disclosure.


  1. 8. People aren’t usually looking for solutions from us, but for a sounding board

We should avoid:

  • Suggesting we know how the person feels

  • Identifying the cause of the problem

  • Telling the person what to do about the problem

  • Minimising their concerns

  • Bringing perspectives with forced positivity and platitudes

  • Admiring the person’s strength

  1. 9. Too much time looking at screens reduces a person’s ability to read facial expressions


This is especially important in how a child engages with their world, but we need to figure out what the use of Zoom is doing to us because it is here to stay. Looking at faces on a screen gives relationships a one dimensional feel and it is easier to miss cues when words and facial expressions do not precisely coincide. We need to audit this properly if we are to develop and not reduce our empathy.


  1. 10. Words can conceal but silences might reveal

We are uncomfortable with long silences, especially in the UK and US (unlike in countries like Japan and Finland). Jumping in can interrupt a person’s thought processes and close down conversation. Murphy, again: Garrulousness fills the silence but erects a kind of word wall that separates you from others. Silence is what allows people in.


As we emerge from the pandemic, everyone has a story to tell but not everyone will have the ears to listen. The duty of a Christian is to love and listening should be one of the easiest first steps to take in caring about someone else, but this step feels more difficult today, like the first step we make out of bed after a long sleep rather than the next step on a country walk.


Kate Murphy draws her book to an end by saying:


Listening is no easy task. Our magnificent brains race along faster than others can speak, making us easily distracted. We overestimate what we already know and, mired in our arrogance, remain unaware of all we misunderstand. We also fear that if we listen too carefully, we might discover that our thinking is flawed or that another person’s emotions might be too much to bear. And so we retreat into our own heads, talk over one another, or reach for our phones.



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