Will you please pay at­ten­tion?

Kate Mur­phy shines a light on a cul­ture that places too much value on talk­ing and or­a­tory, and not enough on lis­ten­ing and com­pre­hend­ing

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOK REVIEWS - Tanya Sweeney

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

By Kate Mur­phy

OHarvil Secker, 288pp, £16.99

n the face of it you might think that lis­ten­ing is so nat­u­ral and com­mon­place a part of the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence that we need barely ac­knowl­edge it. And yet it tran­spires that in this par­tic­u­lar arena most of us are very much found lack­ing.

Whether we are in­ured from nar­ra­tives and ex­pe­ri­ences out­side our own on so­cial me­dia’s echo cham­ber, or we’ve per­fected the art of din­ner party ban­ter, jour­nal­ist Kate Mur­phy re­veals an un­com­fort­able tru­ism. We are con­stantly in con­tact with each other; of­ten to the point of ex­cess. And yet the art of lis­ten­ing – not just hear­ing, but truly, au­then­ti­cally lis­ten­ing – is a lost one. We’re too busy think­ing of what we will say next rather than lis­ten­ing with true in­tent.

Mur­phy, a New York Times con­trib­u­tor, pin­points the “di­a­logue of the deaf” where we talk over or at each other in a cease­less ex­er­cise of self-cu­ra­tion. Or worse, as ap­peared to be the case on Mark Zucker­berg’s much-de­rided “lis­ten­ing tour” of 2017, we lis­ten in a con­trived, pos­si­bly self-serv­ing way.

Much of what Mur­phy dis­cusses is not new. Any­one with even a pass­ing en­gage­ment with mod­ern cul­ture will be aware of the myr­iad dis­trac­tions that in­ter­fere with mean­ing­ful so­cial in­ter­ac­tions. Most people will un­com­fort­ably re­late to the idea of di­rect­ing at­ten­tion to­wards our­selves in a con­ver­sa­tion. We know full well that in a di­vided world we are get­ting worse at lis­ten­ing to op­pos­ing view­points. And yet Mur­phy de­liv­ers all of th­ese ob­ser­va­tions in a clear-eyed and read­able way.

The jour­nal­ist spent two years in­ves­ti­gat­ing the biome­chan­i­cal and neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cal pro­cesses of lis­ten­ing, as well as talk­ing to the world’s “pro­fes­sional” lis­ten­ers: priests, bar­men, hair­dressers, air traf­fic con­trollers, hostage ne­go­tia­tors.

As a jour­nal­ist Mur­phy has been priv­i­leged enough to talk with some of the great­est minds, en­ter­tain­ers and per­son­al­i­ties in the world.

The first chap­ter of You’re Not Lis­ten­ing opens with a fate­ful in­ter­view with the late neu­rol­o­gist/au­thor Oliver Sacks. Both par­ties were busy and pre­oc­cu­pied on the af­ter­noon of that par­tic­u­lar phone con­ver­sa­tion, but their in­ter­view was mem­o­rable, with flashes of “in­sight, recog­ni­tion, cre­ativ­ity, hu­mour and em­pa­thy”.

Pro­foundly per­sonal dis­clo­sures are noth­ing un­com­mon in her line of work, and Mur­phy as­serts that many of her in­ter­view sub­jects are “un­ac­cus­tomed to hav­ing some­one lis­ten to them” . As such a 278-page book on this very sub­ject is more fas­ci­nat­ing than it has any right to be. Part pop psy­chol­ogy tome, part prac­ti­cal man­ual, Mur­phy shines a light on a cul­ture that places a pre­mium on per­for­mance, talk­ing and ora­tion: “Giv­ing a TED Talk or com­mence­ment speech is liv­ing the dream,” she ob­serves.

There is cer­tainly no short­age of in­ves­tiga­tive mus­cle in You’re Not Lis­ten­ing, and it’s clear that Mur­phy has done her home­work, drip-feed­ing her myr­iad find­ings so as not to clout the reader over the head with reams of sci­en­tific jar­gon.

Yet while Mur­phy’s glut of sci­en­tific re­port­ing cer­tainly lends weight and cre­dence to her the­sis, this deep dive into the sci­ence be­hind lis­ten­ing tends to hold up the pace of the book’s de­liv­ery. Like­wise, a me­an­der­ing chap­ter on “the vol­u­ble in­ner voice” cuts through the clean­ness of Mur­phy’s oth­er­wise suc­cinct writ­ing.

Rather it’s when Mur­phy is re­veal­ing her own per­sonal in­ter­ac­tions with oth­ers, or re­count­ing the ex­pe­ri­ences of people like Gary Noes­ner, who spent 30 years as the FBI’s lead hostage ne­go­tia­tor, that gives the book its true heft.

Noes­ner, for in­stance, of­fers a sce­nario of a man hold­ing his ex-girl­friend at gun­point. “I say, ‘tell me what hap­pened’. And I lis­ten, and then I re­spond to what he’s telling me like, ‘sounds to me like what she said re­ally hurt you’. I’m tak­ing time to lis­ten to what he has to say, which he prob­a­bly wasn’t get­ting from his friends and fam­ily.”

Ef­fec­tive and au­then­tic lis­ten­ing, Noes­ner as­serts, re­ally is as sim­ple as that.

The book’s jacket makes a lofty and bold claim: “This book will trans­form your con­ver­sa­tions, your re­la­tion­ships and your life.” It’s per­haps more ac­cu­rate to say that Mur­phy of­fers plenty for her read­ers to think about.

Ul­ti­mately, You’re Not Lis­ten­ing ends up in a cu­ri­ous spot on the pub­lish­ing ter­rain: some­where be­tween a very ex­tended (al­beit en­gag­ing), news­pa­per ar­ti­cle and an en­light­en­ing snap­shot on the hu­man con­di­tion. Wouldn’t you know it: we’re miss­ing more than you might think.

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