Take a moment to answer the following questions:
When was the last time you listened to someone? Really listened, without thinking about what you wanted to say next, glancing down at your phone or jumping in to offer your opinion?
And when was the last time someone really listened to you? Was so attentive to what you were saying and whose response was so thoughtful that you felt truly understood?
The Opinion essay “Talk Less. Listen More. Here’s How.” by Kate Murphy begins with those very questions. Then Ms. Murphy writes about what makes a bad listener:
In writing a book about listening, I asked people from Brooklyn to Beijing what it meant to be a good listener. The typical response was a blank stare. People had no trouble, however, telling me what it meant to be a bad listener, rattling off actions such as interrupting, looking at a phone, and responding in a narcissistic or confused way. The sad truth is that people have more experience being cut off, ignored and misunderstood than heard to their satisfaction.
Of course, technology plays a role. Social media provides a virtual megaphone, along with the means to filter out opposing views. People find phone calls intrusive and ignore voice mail, preferring text or wordless emoji. If people are listening to anything, it’s likely through headphones or earbuds, where they feel safe inside their own curated sound bubbles. This is all fueling what public health officials describe as an epidemic of loneliness in the United States.
But tech is not the only culprit. High schools and colleges have debate teams and courses in rhetoric and persuasion, but rarely, if ever, offer classes or extracurricular activities that teach careful listening. You can get a doctorate in speech communication and join clubs such as Toastmasters to perfect your public speaking, but who strives for excellence in listening? The image of success and power today is someone miked up and prowling around a stage or orating from behind a lectern. Giving a TED talk or delivering a commencement speech is living the dream.
The cacophony of modern life also stops us from listening. The acoustics in restaurants can make it difficult, if not impossible, for diners to clearly hear one another. Offices with an open design ensure every keyboard click, telephone call and after-lunch belch make for constant racket. Traffic noise on city streets, music playing in shops and the bean grinder at your favorite coffeehouse exceed the volume of normal conversation by as much as 30 decibels, and can even cause hearing loss.
Ms. Murphy states that her research led to the conclusion that “listening goes beyond simply hearing what people say. It also involves paying attention to how they say it and what they do while they are saying it, in what context, and how what they say resonates within you.” She continues:
It’s not about merely holding your peace while someone else holds forth. Quite the opposite. A lot of listening has to do with how you respond — the degree to which you facilitate the clear expression of another person’s thoughts and, in the process, crystallize your own.
Good listeners ask good questions. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned as a journalist is that anyone can be interesting if you ask the right questions. That is, if you ask truly curious questions that don’t have the hidden agenda of fixing, saving, advising, convincing or correcting. Curious questions don’t begin with “Wouldn’t you agree…?” or “Don’t you think…?” and they definitely don’t end with “right?” The idea is to explore the other person’s point of view, not sway it.
… You also want to avoid asking people personal and appraising questions like “What do you do for a living?” or “What part of town do you live in?” or “What school did you go to?” or “Are you married?” This line of questioning is not an honest attempt to get to know who you’re talking to so much as rank them in the social hierarchy. It’s more like an interrogation and, as a former C.I.A. agent told me, interrogation will get you information, but it won’t be credible or reliable.
In social situations, peppering people with judgmental questions is likely to shift the conversation into a superficial, self-promoting elevator pitch. In other words, the kinds of conversations that make you want to leave the party early and rush home to your dog.
Instead, ask about people’s interests. Try to find out what excites or aggravates them — their daily pleasures or what keeps them up at night. Ask about the last movie they saw or for the story behind a piece of jewelry they’re wearing. Also good are expansive questions, such as, “If you could spend a month anywhere in the world, where would you go?”
Ms. Murphy also offers an argument for why listening skills are so important to cultivate:
Listening is a skill. And as with any skill, it degrades if you don’t do it enough. Some people may have stronger natural ability while others may have to work harder, but each of us can become a better listener with practice. The more people you listen to, the more aspects of humanity you will recognize, and the better your instincts will be. Listening well can help you understand other people’s attitudes and motivations, which is essential in building cooperative and productive relationships, as well as discerning which relationships you’d be better off avoiding.
We are, each of us, the sum of what we attend to in life. The soothing voice of a mother, the whisper of a lover, the guidance of a mentor, the admonishment of a supervisor, the rallying call of a leader and the taunts of a rival ultimately form and shape us. And to listen poorly, selectively or not at all limits your understanding of the world and prevents you from becoming the best you can be.
Students, read the entire essay, then tell us:
How do you respond to the idea that part of being a good listener is asking the right sort of questions? Can you think of an example from a conversation you had with someone new in which that person did a good job with, say, asking about your interests instead of “interrogating” you? How did you feel during and after that conversation?
Now think about a recent conversation you had with someone you know well. Did you both talk roughly the same amount of time? What kinds of questions were asked? Did you feel supported and that you had the other person’s attention? Do you think the other person felt the same way? What, if anything, could one or both of you have done differently to improve the experience?
The essay mentions a number of likely culprits for why so many people report being unsatisfied with others’ listening skills, such as the ways we use technology, the noise in places we try to talk to one another, and the value we place on people who deliver important speeches or give TED talks. What are your thoughts on these culprits in the erosion of listening skills? Was anything overlooked? If so, what?
Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.