“Why did people have so few people in their lives that they felt they could tell things to? And why it was seen as a shameful thing to ask someone, or too much to ask, to have someone listen?”
“The most effective educators and any speaker are the ones that know their audience, the ones that know their students; and that requires listening.”
“But I do think when you’re really trying to connect with someone, particularly a student, maybe somebody who’s struggling, or maybe just at the end of the lesson turn off the cameras and let me hear from you, how are you feeling? Let them connect with you just vocally, verbally, tonally.”
“Because if you engage higher order thinking, which is what listening is, it’s really trying to understand how that person formed that opinion, how you formed your opinion, and really trying to get to an idea of how they came up with that. Why are they holding firm to that? And that whole process tamps down the amygdala. It makes you less reactive.”
“Once you find out how someone formed an opinion, you may ultimately not agree with their opinion, but you get ideas of where you can find points of commonality, where you can reach a consensus, how you can cooperate.”
“Everybody’s interesting if you ask the right question. And so that’s really a key to being a good listener is to really keep your mind open and know this person knows something I don’t and I want to find out what it is. And that’s also the fun of it. That’s what makes life really worth living. We’re here to connect with one another. We’re here to discover one another. That’s how we cooperate. That’s how we’ve advanced as a species to really listen and find points of agreement and to really develop each other’s ideas, and to learn and grow from one another.”
“I think survivors of the pandemic will be more aware of the value of close relationships, and as you say, connection. And listening is the best and really the only way to develop and sustain our connections in both good times and bad.”
Q: Can you tell me first a little about your background and how you became interested in writing about the topic and the interpersonal skill of listening?
A: Well, I’m a long-time journalist, so I’ve always been interested in listening just because that’s really what I see as fundamental to the work that I do. And on top of that, I live in the same world that everyone else does, where I’ve kind of noticed that listening is becoming something of a lost art, and I wanted to find out why that was.
And also, just as a journalist, I was noticing increasingly during interviews that people would start telling me very intimate details about their lives and problems that they were having, things wholly unrelated to the interview, and this was happening with such regularity. And I’m talking about pretty breathtaking disclosures. These were people who were very accomplished, had a vast network of friends and family and colleagues; and I wondered why they were telling me.
And at the end of the conversation, they would always say, “Thank you so much for listening.” And almost with the same breath they would say, “I’m so sorry,” as if they had asked too much of me and that they weren’t supposed to have someone listen, that it was too much of a chore to ask someone to listen to them.
And that really made me want to investigate this a little bit more. Why did people have so few people in their lives that they felt they could tell things to? And also, why it was seen as a shameful thing to ask someone, or too much to ask, to have someone listen? That was really the genesis of it. And yeah, and boy, what a rabbit hole led me down. Quite a bit there.
Q: Yeah, I imagine. Interesting that people saw that as like a big ask, a big request. In your book, you write about listening being a foundation to communication and learning. What lessons does your book offer to today’s educators and students?
A: Oh, wow. Well, every chapter looks at a different aspect of listening and it gives anecdotes, but also just practical tips on how to be a better listener. And teaching as much as someone is standing before a classroom and trying to impart knowledge, and of course, wanting the students to listen to them, they also need to listen to the student to really figure out where they are, what their level of understanding is, what’s going to get them excited, what motivates them.
Really, the most effective speakers, the most effective people who speak to audiences, whether it’s a comedian or a politician, a salesman, and an educator, that the most effective educators and any speaker are the ones that know their audience, the ones that know their students; and that requires listening. And so I think it’s really critical, and not only between the student and the educator but also with their colleagues, with their administrators and crucially also with parents, and really finding out where people are. And that way you can, you can absolutely be better able to impart whatever knowledge, whatever it is that you want the other person to retain.
Q: Absolutely a good point, which I think most writers hopefully home in on knowing your audience, but what a kind of salient point with that. You also talk about technology and specifically our dependency on it, our heavy use of technology, social media, our use of digital communications, and how this has caused us to be not as effective or even not as good at listening. With this kind of past year of virtual existence that many have been doing, and certainly the students have been doing virtual learning in many instances, and we’re all spending more time in front of screens, how would you recommend that we address the impact that this experience, this extended experience in front of screens has impacted the kids and how we can help them be better listeners, or to continue developing their listening skills?
A: That is so hard. I actually wrote a story recently for the New York Times about how Zoom is really terrible for listening because it’s distorted. The whole nature of video platforms is there are stutters, stops. It’s not like having a normal conversation. Pupils are not having eye contact with you. They’re looking somewhere on their screen but not in your eyes. That you can’t see the little subtle changes in expression because of the smoothing over in the technology to preserve bandwidth.
And as a result, the brain, just the primitive part of your brain, is always looking to mirror the other person, where you almost do the same expressions that they do. And when you’re missing all of that information, and they’re very subtle subconscious things that you pick up on when you are having an in-person conversation that are totally missing, and not only missing they’re distorted in a video chat; and as a result, that’s why it’s so tiring and exhausting because your brain is almost on overtime thinking, “What’s going on here? This isn’t right. This isn’t right.” So you’re always trying to overcome that hurdle.
And also just by virtue of where the screen is, where the camera is on your laptop, you could be looking down, you could be looking up, and by virtue of that, it signals your brain that person’s haughty, that person’s dejected, that person’s angry, this person sad. It’s not conscious, but it is something that you’re trying to overcome.
And don’t get me wrong, I mean, video’s great, particularly I would think in the teaching context when you need to show something, when you’re showing a problem, you’re trying to work out or you’re trying to show something visually, I think that’s very helpful. But in terms of really trying to connect with a student or see where the student is, it’s actually better to turn off the camera and really just listen and pay attention to the tonality of the voice. And there’s also something about just being in the person’s ear, particularly if they’re wearing headphones, where there’s a little bit more of an intimacy to it.
By virtue, it’s better to have no visual cues than distorted visual cues. And so if you really want to touch base or check-in with a student, it probably is better not to have them looking at you in that distorted circumstance and you looking at them in that distorted circumstance. To just talk with them, hear each other’s breathing, have that conversation. That I guess would be my first recommendation.
And the other is just to be cognizant of that, that that is something, that that’s a hurdle making all of this more difficult. And this is why you’re so tired at the end of the day. Not that teaching is an incredibly exhausting and absorbing profession without the video, but I think this is asking you all to go above and beyond because it is exhausting. It’s causing a literal brain cramp when you’re doing this.
I think just having that awareness, that it is a distortion and it is something that you have to overcome and it’s also something your students are having to overcome. You look weird to them. You do. Just like they look weird to you. We’re getting used to it so we’re not really acknowledging it anymore.
But just one of the things I found in my book that I thought was absolutely fascinating is that we all have color signatures and that’s the tone of our face. We have all of these blood vessels in our face that have these slightly different variations when we’re talking that match different emotions. And it doesn’t matter what your skin color is, it doesn’t matter about ethnicity or anything. It’s a slight gradation of change in the coloration of people’s faces that matches. You’ve got one color for aggravation and one for joy and one for confusion. You are reading that all the time when you’re talking to somebody. They did these wonderful studies where they showed people pictures with neutral faces, but changed the coloration, gave it a particular emotional color signature and people could, I mean, just nail it every time. What do you think this person’s emotion is?
So back to the video, that colorations all messed up. And so you’re missing so much data and also you’re getting distorted data just by how you have the coloration on your screen. So again, it’s just to be really cognizant of all these subconscious things that are happening to you and to the kids. I’m so sympathetic for what you all are trying to do. It’s just, it’s valiant. But I do think when you’re really trying to connect with someone, particularly a student, maybe somebody who’s struggling, or maybe just at the end of the lesson turn off the cameras and let me hear from you, so how are you feeling? Let them connect with you just vocally, verbally, tonally.
Q: That’s all very interesting and applicable to classroom scenarios, but way beyond that. Meeting scenarios, our school board officials when they are meeting, professional realm, it’s really applicable across the board. I think it makes everyone have to work a little harder with the verbalization since the kind of facial cues are not as present or as accurate maybe is the right way to say that.
A: Maybe also just have the camera focused on whatever you’re teaching. I don’t know if you’re actually showing, if you’re writing or typing or how you’re showing doing lessons, or even like you say, if you’re having a meeting with somebody to have the visuals in the video but not necessarily have it on your face.
Q: Interesting. So you also touch in your book on civil discourse and how difficult it is for most people to listen to opposing viewpoints. And so would you explain the importance of listening to others who you may not agree with and you might know you don’t agree with them, but the importance of that? But then also, how you overcome that sort of natural reaction, the difficulty of that?
A: Well, it really is a primal reaction. When you engage with somebody or are presented with somebody who has very different views, holds a different belief, opinions, your brain reacts as if it’s being chased by a bear. They’ve done studies, FMRIs where they have people that have very strong beliefs and they actually challenged those beliefs and see what their brains do. And the fight or flight, really absolutely intense fear parts of the brain, get activated. It’s the area called the amygdala.
It’s primal and it makes sense in evolutionary terms. Because if you didn’t agree with your people in your tribe, you risk being cast out, and so it’s very alarming and we still have that primitive reaction. And that’s why people get in these horrible fights about things, whether it’s political or it could be something as simple as what is the best sci-fi franchise, Star Wars or Star Trek? That actually ended in an assault and battery charge where people get… Well, I mean, it is. It’s almost that primal reaction of road rage, where someone cuts you off and just how could I have gotten that upset? It’s the same thing. That is what’s happening to us.
Now, as far as overcoming that, it is listening. Because if you engage higher order thinking, which is what listening is, it’s really trying to understand how that person formed that opinion, how you formed your opinion, and really trying to get to an idea of how they came up with that. Why are they holding firm to that? And that whole process tamps down the amygdala. It makes you less reactive.
And once you do that, you may end up not agreeing with the person, but you will have a better understanding. And after all, we’re only as firm in our convictions as when they’re challenged and when we’re exposed to lots of different ideas. And it’s always best to enter into these conversations as, how could I be wrong, instead of how are they wrong, listening for ways to poke holes in their arguments, but listen for ways that maybe your argument has a flaw in it, which is hard to do and takes some courage. And that’s part of the art of listening is really being open to that and realizing that things aren’t necessarily black and white, and the other person isn’t necessarily evil and you’re not necessarily totally righteous. But that’s the only way you learn.
And also once you find out how someone formed an opinion, you may ultimately not agree with their opinion, but you get ideas of where you can find points of commonality, where you can reach a consensus, how you can cooperate. And that’s really the beauty of listening. It firms up your own beliefs and it also leaves you open to figuring out where your beliefs may be flawed and vice versa with the other person, but also finding where’s that ground where we can meet in the middle?
Q: It’s so important, so important on so many different levels. So one of your chapters is titled “I Know What You’re Going To Say,” and you discuss how assumptions can shut down active listening. And I think anybody self-reflecting can find a moment where they’ve done that or many moments where they’ve done that. How can acknowledging biases or those preformed assumptions help us to listen more effectively, and obviously, subsequently increase our understanding of the other person? Can you talk a little bit about the assumptions that we make?
A: I feel very fortunate being a journalist because you find out so often, or I have found so often, that what I thought the story was going to be about once I listened to people, oh, it wasn’t about that at all. It really wasn’t. Now, I could have held firm to what I thought the story was about and go on ahead and looked for supporting evidence for that, but boy, it would be a terrible story because the real story is so much more interesting than you could possibly imagine.
And it is part of the human condition. It is how our brains work. Our brains are prediction machines, and that’s how we get through the day and that’s how our primitive cells stayed alive. When you predicted where the tiger was going to be, then you lived to see another day. So we’re primed to make those assumptions.
I hope no one listening thinks that my book is a wag your finger and everybody, we all do this. This is what we all do. That’s really why it’s an art to being a good listener; being able to realize, I’m making an assumption, and how you stop that is truly ask questions. To first, be humble enough to know you don’t know everything. And just because somebody else similar to this person feels this way, doesn’t mean this person does, and everybody is unique and everybody has a story. And everybody has an interesting story that is so much more complicated and so much more interesting than you possibly can imagine.
And I can guarantee you, after interviewing people for so many years, everybody’s interesting if you ask the right question. And so that’s really a key to being a good listener is to really keep your mind open and know this person knows something I don’t and I want to find out what it is. You’re almost like the Sherlock Holmes in the conversation. What’s the interesting thing I can find out? What’s going to overturn my assumptions? How am I going to be surprised?
And that’s also the fun of it. That’s what makes life really worth living. We’re here to connect with one another. We’re here to discover one another. That’s how we cooperate. That’s how we’ve advanced as a species to really listen and find points of agreement and to really develop each other’s ideas, and to learn and grow from one another.
Q: Totally true. And you mentioned we’re here to connect with one another and I think that topic of connectivity has just become so apparent and prominent this past year while we’ve been unable to connect in person in most instances, but still needing that connectivity, that ability to connect, even not being able to be in the same room with one another. So I think all that you’ve covered in your book, which is certainly applicable prior to COVID and after COVID and takes on sort of a different shape and form during these past 11 months, I would say.
A: Oh, I think you are really very much on point about that. Because I never would have imagined when I wrote the book that…of course, no one imagined that this would happen. But if months of home confinement have taught us anything, all this social distancing, it’s how much we long for the company of others. All of this has made the point of my book or underscored it in a way that I never thought possible. I mean, texting and Zoom are poor substitutes for being present, physically and emotionally.
And countless readers of the book have emailed me to say that having to maintain physical distance from other people has made them more aware of their emotional distance. And they said that reading the book has helped them to listen better and become closer to, not only to those people within their quarantine bubbles or pods but also to more distant friends and family whom they’re now making a point of really touching base with and calling regularly.
And also the other thing is, I don’t know what your experience is, but my experience certainly during the pandemic, it’s resurrected the tradition to listening to people’s stories around a campfire or on front porches. When I say campfires, you know when people put those little outdoor fireplaces. I was sitting in front of one just this weekend in somebody’s driveway.
And in that way, I’m very hopeful because people become more covetous of the things that they’re denied. And just as people survived the Depression later tended to be more acutely aware of the value of a dollar, I think survivors of the pandemic will be more aware of the value of close relationships, and as you say, connection. And listening is the best and really the only way to develop and sustain our connections in both good times and bad.
Q: It will be truly interesting to see how everybody comes out of this in so many different ways, but I think you couldn’t be more right about the coveting what we are not able to have right now. So I’m very curious to see how we kind of evolve as a society coming out of all of this.
A: Yeah. I mean, if there’s one good thing that will come out of this, I think that would be it. And an awareness.
Kate Murphy is a Houston, Texas–based journalist who has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Agence France-Presse, and Texas Monthly. Her eclectic and widely shared pieces have explored an extraordinary range of topics including health, technology, science, design, art, aviation, business, finance, fashion, dining, travel, and real estate.
Kate is known for her fresh and accessible way of explaining complex subjects, particularly the science behind human interactions, helping readers understand why people behave the way they do. She also holds a commercial pilot’s license, which she puts to good use when called upon to report from remote locations.