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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Thrower

'You're not listening...'

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

Listening is a courtesy and, more fundamentally, a sign of respect… But listening is no easy task.

So says Kate Murphy in her new book You’re Not Listening: What you’re missing and why it matters (2020, Harvill Secker) arguing that good listening is a lost art.

Bad listening

We all know what it's like to not receive a hearing. The most often cited bad behaviours are:

  • Interrupting

  • Responding vaguely or illogically to what was just said

  • Looking at a phone, watch, or around the room

  • Fidgeting

In communications training there is little about listening – the focus is on how to speak rather than listen.

Julia Burton-Jones, the Anna Chaplaincy lead in Kent has picked out aspects of this helpful book which she has summarised for the benefit of all Anna Chaplains and their equivalents in our network offering spiritual care to older people and their carers. For example:

Listening requires, more than anything, curiosity. (p.38). Children and adults who are securely attached are more curious and open to new information. If you have someone who listens to you and to whom you feel connected (a ‘secure base’), you are more willing to step out into the world and interact with others, with the potential you may find out something that upsets you.

Attentive listening

Attentive listeners elicit more information and relevant detail. If the person you are talking to shows signs they are not listening, you will curtail your story. In interacting with others our goal should be to learn something, and we can only learn from the other. We need to foster a genuine curiosity about others’ thoughts and feelings.

Thinking you already know where a conversation will go kills curiosity and subverts listening. We tend to gravitate towards people we know in social gatherings, but research shows we can have the most enlivening conversations with strangers. Dopamine, the feel-good chemical in the brain, is released when we have chance encounters with people to a greater extent than through planned meetings, because our brains are wired to feel more alive in unfamiliar and risky situations.

Interrogation is less likely to lead to disclosure than finding common ground in conversation and being genuinely curious and courteous.


There is a danger couples and close friends assume they know each other because of the past, but they stop listening. Studies show how people often disclose their deeper worries to the people they know less well. However, with strangers there is also the danger we draw upon our biases and make assumptions about who they are and what they think.

Active listening

Focusing on the emotional content of what we say – how we can say the same words but they are weighted with different meanings - the author draws from Carl Rogers’ work on active listening; being in a receptive mode so as to pick up on feeling tones and underlying meanings that are being expressed, not just the facts of what they say. This requires being fully available and giving the person the sense that you have nowhere else to be.

Introverts and extroverts

There's a ‘speech-thought differential’ – so there are traps we fall into because it takes much longer to speak than to think/ Our minds might race off when we are listening to someone. Introverts can find listening difficult as they have so much busyness in their heads. The spare ‘bandwidth’ available when listening to someone speak needs to be used to fully concentrate on what they are actually saying, reading their body language etc. but we easily get diverted to thinking about unrelated things and miss half of what's being said. We also get caught up in thinking what we will say next, especially as we fear silences.


There's a stress on the importance of listening to people who have different opinions and being open to their views – we need to listen for evidence we might be wrong, not just for reasons to disagree with the other.

Good listeners have negative capability. They are 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, which is perhaps the opposite to being narrow-minded. Negative capability is also at the root of creativity because it leads to new ways of thinking about things. (p.87)


Being taught how to listen involves improvisational listening and this is exemplified by improvisational comedy. An example of a training exercise is mirroring in pairs, with the two matching as closely as possible facial expressions and body movements.

The joy and benefit of human interactions come from a reciprocal focusing on one another’s words and actions, and being ready and willing to respond and expand on every contribution. The result is mutual understanding and even appreciation.’(p.111)


If you are conversationally sensitive you're able to pick up intricate cues through intense listening. This is necessary in editing long interviews for TV and radio, picking up the essentials in what a person is saying. This is clearer when the person is talking about things that spark an emotional response in them. There is a complexity to listening linked to how we hear certain word and ideas – good listeners need to be aware of how they might react personally in these situations and the danger they may jump to the wrong conclusion – in other words, ‘self-monitoring’. A close friend might help you identify what shuts you down in conversation. The danger is we miss what is being said, including through non-verbal clues – our intuition is blocked – we may miss the clues someone is lying to us, for instance. Sometimes we need to be honest and admit we have not fully understood, asking the person to clarify what they are saying.

We incorrectly assume other people’s logic and motivations resemble our own. But, of course, they have different backstories and baggage. (p.127)

Inner voice

Listen to your inner voice and notice how it affects you – its tone (friendly or critical etc. – Murphy's friend’s inner voice is nicknamed ‘Spanky’!)

Inner dialogue fosters and supports cognitive complexity, that valuable ability to tolerate a range of views, make associations and come up with new ideas. (p.130)

Our inner voices often echo those we heard in childhood, including in their tone. We also have different voices for different characters when we are reading a book. Listening to our inner voice is something many of us avoid because downtime brings us face to face with problems that need fixing – but we can only avoid the inner voice for so long before it wakes us at night. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, CBT, is about learning to talk to oneself differently, changing the unhelpful inner voice to a kinder one. The more people we listen to, the more variety of inner voices we will cultivate.

Shifting the conversation

Not shifting the conversation is an essential element of good listening – shift responses are symptomatic of conversational narcissism, which quashes any type of connection. (p 138)

Useful questions are fill-in-the-blank questions, e.g. ‘You got in a fight because….?’ The temptation is to ask questions that display your own knowledge or reinforce your own view – ‘Don’t you think that…?’ Long questions are also deadly! Questions can also make assumptions; ‘What made you decide….?’ rather than ‘How did it come about that….?’

Open-ended questions carry more risk that you cannot control the conversation but allow greater depth and self-disclosure. People who feel they are being ‘interviewed’ are less likely to open up. It appears women are better at open-ended conversations, but this may be more about nurture than nature.

The shift response often occurs when we are uncomfortable with strong emotions being expressed by the other, where we might respond by trying to solve or explain away problems rather than listening and allowing the upset person to feel what they are feeling and, through dialogue, find their solutions. We must 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

Being aware of someone’s troubles doesn’t mean you need to fix them. People usually aren’t looking for solutions from you anyway; they just want a sounding board…. The best you can do is listen. Try to understand what the person is facing and appreciate how it feels.’(p.144)

Questions are important in conversations but exploratory questions e.g. what would constitute a ‘perfect’ day for you? are best in deepening a relationship. Because good listening is so rare, people will confide much about themselves if given the opportunity.

Left ear, right ear

Think about the role of our ears and brains in listening to people and the intricate complexity of auditory processing. The left ear recognises emotion in speech whereas our right ear is better at comprehending language – this may affect, for instance, how we listen to phone calls. If a person lifts their left ear towards a conversation, it indicates they are picking up on feelings.

Many contexts in which we listen are designed so that listening to emotional tone is difficult, as in noisy public places. Listening to loud sounds through headphones is also causing hearing loss, especially in younger people. Being unable to hear well makes listening more of a challenge and the ability to connect with others is reduced, causing loneliness.

Our eyes are also important in listening, as 55% of the emotional content in spoken messages is non-verbal – facial expressions are involuntary, are pre-language, for example, and key to evolutionary human survival. Spending too much time looking at screens, or being raised by emotionally flat caregivers, reduces a person’s ability to read facial expressions. Experiments have shown that reducing time children spend on devices quickly improves their ability to read facial expression and identify emotion in photographs. Sometimes what we see in a person’s face is such deep emotion we find it difficult to look at them.

Meanwhile, 38% of a person’s feelings and attitudes are conveyed by tone of voice, so the quality of a phone line is important – the demand for video and data has led to a reduction in sound quality for mobile phone calls. Listening is intricate and multisensory. (p.173)


We are addicted to distractions. There's been a shortening of our attention span in recent years as our use of devices has increased. Onstage performances and online content have reduced in length and need to include more variety to keep our attention; we even have the technology to speed listen to audio books, skipping to the good parts of a story. The impact of checking one's phone while listening causes conversation to be curtailed. In public places such as restaurants there are other distractions, such as background music played at a high volume, forcing us to ‘multi-task’ in our listening. We need to seek quiet places for conversations, turn off phones and computers that may make sounds.


What do words sometimes conceal and how might silences reveal? We are very uncomfortable with long silences in conversations but when we jump in to end them we can interrupt a person’s thought processes and close down the conversation. In Japan and Finland there is greater comfort with silences at the ends of sentences and this has been used to the advantage of businesses in closing deals. In Western cultures we interpret silences as disapproval, rather than indicating the person is just thinking.

To be a good listener is to accept pauses and silences because filling them too soon, much less pre-emptively, prevents the speaker from communicating what they are perhaps struggling to say. It quashes elaboration and prevents real issues from coming to the surface. Just wait. Give the other person a chance to pick up where they left off.’ (p. 189)

Garrulousness fills the silence but erects a kind of word wall that separates you from others. Silence is what allows people in.’ (p.192)


Murphy explores 'the morality of listening’ and the positive contribution of gossip. Gossip is defined as at least two people talking about someone who is absent and makes up two-thirds of adult conversation – studies show only 3-4% is mean-spirited. Gossip is necessary in making sense of human interaction, the decisions and behaviours of others.

Listening holds moral and ethical imperatives:

‘ntegrity and character are not things you are born with; they develop day by day through the choices you make, and that very much includes to whom and how well you choose to listen.’ (p.198)

People tend to regret not listening more than listening, and tend to regret things they said more than things they didn’t say.’ (p.198)


We need to know when to stop listening – for example, when one's reached the end of one's capacity to listen and need a break, or when listening in a toxic encounter.

We have several expectations in conversation which make listening easier:

  • That the other is truthful

  • That they are sharing information that we did not know already but not so much that we are overwhelmed

  • That what they are sharing is relevant and follows a logical flow

  • That the speaker is reasonably brief, orderly and unambiguous


This, Murphy, explains why it can be difficult to listen to people with dementia. When these expectations are not met, and someone, for instance, drones on in a boring fashion, we zone out. Those who are best able to fulfill expectations tend to be those who are good listeners, attuned to their audience:

Listening is not just something you should do when someone else is talking; it’s also something you should do while you are talking.

If you are not sure if others are happy with what you are saying, you can check in and ask them, e.g. ‘Am I boring you?’ A continual listening feedback loop can be established which shapes what people say and how they say it, such that brain waves start to sync'. Someone who doesn’t follow or listen is like dancing with someone who is keeping a different rhythm.

If you are a good listener people will always come to you with their problems and you have to have limits to the listening you can do.

Listening also continues after the conversation, as you think back through what someone said. You may return with further questions that make you realise what you thought initially was incomplete.

A suggested exercise is to think about the people you find it hard to listen to and ask yourself what makes them so? Being judgemental? Repeating stories? Too negative? Incorrect facts? Do they challenge you or disagree with you? Sometimes we need to listen to criticism. Sometimes, by understanding what we find hard through deep listening, we can learn to find that person easier to listen to.


Murphy describes a Roman Catholic Church that has constant queues of people waiting for confession, and the priest there who senses people need a place where they are listened to.

We can improve at listening, through practice, but will never fully master it.

Listening heightens your awareness. It makes you feel. As you become more attuned to the thoughts and emotions of others, you become more alive to the world and it becomes more alive to you.’ (p.221)

Listening is a courtesy and, more fundamentally, a sign of respect…. But 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. (p.222-23)



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