How You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy changed my life.
A Little Story
Once upon a time, there was a young warrior. He was sitting with his family at the dinner table, blowing air over a spoon of too-hot soup, when his dad told him: “I spoke with Mike yesterday, he wants you to join his basketball team again. You will get a lot of chances to play on the field and you only need to train 3 times per week and …” “Dad,” the warrior interrupted, “you’re not listening. I told you already too many times that I don’t want to play basketball anymore!” The rest of the dinner was filled with silence. Sometimes, the warrior felt like his words went into one ear of the person he was talking to, and those words soon came out again on the other side.
“YELLOW MUST BE THE IMPOSTER!” echoed a metallic voice throughout the bedroom. It was Saturday evening and the warrior was video calling with his friends while playing the game “Among Us”. The stakes were high, he was Yellow and indeed he was the imposter. The goal of the game is to hide the fact you are the imposter, which requires a certain amount of lying. The warrior, however, was a very bad liar. His lying would have been equally obvious if his nose would grow like Pinocchio. Somehow he was proud of the fact he was a bad liar. Now his friends were certain that they could trust him.
Saturday night video calling while playing “Among Us” had become a weekly tradition. Because of the covid quarantine, there was no other way to stay in touch with his friends. When it was time to go to bed, one by one his friends left the call until just he and one friend remained. After some funny conversations suddenly his friend’s face changed. With a serious face, hiding a glimpse of sadness he began talking about his ex-girlfriend. It soon became clear there were a lot of emotions involved. The warrior’s brain was running at full speed, he wanted to help his friend as best as he could. So he was thinking full time about which advice he should give and was already thinking about his response when his friend just said the first word of the next sentence. He thought about similar situations in his own life which might help his friend. He was trying very hard, but he didn’t feel like he fully understood what his friend was saying. As if by magic, he remembered what he read in a book called You’re not listening by Kate Murphy.
He turned his approach of listening totally upside down in mid-conversation. He tried to focus solely on his friend, not on his own thoughts as if in some kind of meditation. He showed he was interested and didn’t interrupt him with one of his own stories. He stopped giving advice. He just nodded a lot and when his friend stopped talking, he thought of a good question to keep him going. It was 3 am and the video call ended. The warrior felt weird. He had never had this kind of conversation before. It felt like he was misleading his friend, couldn’t he have helped him better by giving him advice? He felt like he had let his friend down. But was it really?
The next day, he got a message:
“Thanks, warrior, you don’t realize how much the conversation last night helped me”
This simple sentence, with such an emotional load, touched him so deeply that he burst into tears. Each tear was a little package filled with happiness.
What is listening?
Real listening is not the same as just letting the other’s voice vibrate the little bones in your ear. It requires some effort and is more difficult than you think. By listening, you try to find out what the other person means, thinks, and feels. You don’t just accept what you hear and formulate a nice response to it.
Good listeners try to interrupt as little as possible, ask the right questions, and focus fully on the other person, not on themselves. They try to be fully present. Master Oogway from the film Kung Fu Panda says it best:
Using your full focus on listening is more difficult than you think. This is mostly because of the speed discrepancy between thinking and talking. Your thinking will inevitably go faster. The challenge is to try to use that extra bandwidth to notice things like body language. Don’t daydream about unicorns while listening, please.
Another pitfall might be that when you hear the story the person is telling, it reminds you of something you have experienced yourself and you feel the urge to tell your own story. Try to stop this urge. Don’t tell it, even if you think that it can help the person. It is not about you, it is about them. The other problem with telling your “own” related story is that for you it might seem very similar, but in reality, it is never completely the same, because everyone is unique. The other might even think your story is totally unrelated to what they were saying, which might worsen the relationship.
It is natural to feel the urge to help them, to fix their problem. Often you can’t and often that’s not what they want. With real listening, you help them with fixing their problem by helping them to think about them. As earlier said, thinking goes faster than talking, which also involves another problem. Because thinking goes so fast in your head it may seem like you’re running around in a maze without an exit. But when you talk about it, you are obliged to slow down, and maybe then you notice a small hole in the wall, just big enough to escape.
How To Be Listened To
Here are some guidelines which might help when you feel like somebody is not listening to you.
- Choose the right listener – you will find them by being a good listener yourself
- Tell stories – not just a list of facts*
- Don’t complain – nobody likes to listen to people that complain all the time**
- Be curious – other perspectives might shine a new light on yours
- Be honest – trust can be easily lost when you lie
- Be courageous – when you open yourself you are vulnerable, but in these moments, the strongest bonds are made
- Have fun – saying something funny even in the most emotional conversations can help
*A great book about storytelling is Storyworthy by Matthew Dicks
** To stop complaining, I would like to refer to one simple concept I read in a book called Effortless by Greg McKeown which helped me a lot. First, try to notice when you are complaining. Or notice when you want to complain but the words are still in your head. When you notice that, search for something you should be grateful for in that situation and say that instead. For example, once my parents came to pick me up to go back home but they were late. My grumpy self inevitably started thinking, “They are late again”. I noticed this thought and realized I should say this, “I am privileged that my parents are going to pick me up and I don’t need to go back home by train.”
You can train your listening skills, you know. Read this book. Hold the concepts at the back of your head during conversations. Something that I try to do is to start conversations with strangers at the train station or on the train itself and listen to what they are saying. So, train in the train.