Book review: You’re not listening – What you’re missing and why it matters by Kate Murphy

Active listening is a core communication skill that is fundamental for creating and developing relationships. Yet listening doesn’t receive nearly as much attention as other communication skills such as speaking, writing, presenting and negotiating. Effective listening is critical for so many activities such as learning, leading, client service, consulting, coaching, persuading, selling, negotiating, mediating and, of course, counselling and psychotherapy. Much of the long training as a psychotherapist focused on how to really listen to clients – with my ears and my eyes and my body. Surprisingly, the author of this fantastic book is an American journalist. So here is a book review:  You’re not listening – What you’re missing and why it matters by Kate Murphy.  Published in 2020.

Overview of the book “You’re not listening – What you’re missing and why it matters” by Kate Murphy

Long ago, I was shocked to learn that research suggests we only absorb about 10%-25% of what we hear. So I started searching for great resources to support active listening, conversation and coaching training sessions. And I couldn’t find many. But this book is a gem.

Originally, I purchased an audio version of this book. But I found myself stopping frequently to listen again to key points and/or take notes so many times that I purchased a hard copy as well. Perhaps that is an indicator of my inadequate listening skills!

This is an unusual and valuable book. Intrinsically interesting and observed and written with great skill so it’s a joy to read. It is evidence and research rich. It tackles the simple concept of listening with insight following two years’ academic research and many interviews to those regarded as great listeners. The material will be valuable to people in many endeavours – including coaching, counselling, negotiating, relationship management and selling.

So many of the author’s statements hit home powerfully. Some revelations (such the impact of listening on mental health and that people who are more intelligent are often poorer listeners) are striking. There is plenty of guidance on how to connect with people more effectively so it’s a good resource for those learning how to improve personal and professional relationships (also see my book: Better Business Relationships book by Kim Tasso (Bloomsbury)).

There’s so much great content in the book so my apologies that this post is long. But I urge you to buy your own copy and reflect on its contents.


The author observes that we are rarely encouraged to listen carefully and with intent to other people – we are engaged in “a dialogue of the deaf”. As a marketer, her comment “it’s all about defining yourself, shaping the narrative and staying on message. Value is placed on what you project, not what you absorb” really hit home.

She then states: “It is only by listening that we engage, understand, connect, empathise and develop as human beings” and reminds us of the famous saying by Epictetus “Nature hath given men one tongue but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak”.

She notes that social media has given everyone a virtual megaphone to broadcast every thought but we remain safe within our own curated sound bubbles. With the result of a creeping sense of isolation and emptiness from digital distraction.  She reflects “We are, each of us, the sum of what we attend to in life”.

The lost art of listening

Our busyness prevents listening. She describes interviewing Oliver Sacks, the eminent neurologist and author, best known for his memoire “Awakenings”. And describes how they got lost in a wide-ranging conversation despite both of them being pressed for time. She notes that her most valued interviews were those that veered off topic and into the personal – where people often made profoundly personal disclosures.

She laments that we are now often too busy or distracted to explore the depths of one another’s thoughts and feelings. She notes that we now pass around a phone to look at pictures instead of describing what we’ve seen or experienced.

Lack of listening leads to loneliness. She observes: “People get lonely for lack of listening”. And then goes on to describe the epidemic of loneliness in the United States and how it increases the risk of premature death as much as obesity and alcoholism combined.

We are surrounded by people but feel disconnected from them. In a 2018 survey of 20,000 Americans almost half said they did not have meaningful in-person social interactions. Also in 2018, the UK appointed a “minister for loneliness” to help its nine million citizens who often or always feel lonely.

She notes that suicide rates are at a 30 year high in the United States, up 30 percent since 1999. And notes that Generation Z, the first generation raised on screens, are the most likely to feel lonely and self-report that thy are in worse health than other generation, including the elderly.

Studies indicate that the greater the screen time, the greater the unhappiness. Eighth graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of clinical depression by 27 per cent. But simply being face-to-face with people isn’t enough – you have to listen to them. And she observes that the way film and TV portray conversations and how to explore disparate views isn’t helpful. So good listening is important for mental health.

She comments that many social media accounts do not belong to real people and that probably only around 1% create the content. She asked in interviews “Who listens to you?” and found that many people paid people (therapists, coaches, hairdressers etc) to listen to them as many felt it burdensome to ask friends and family to listen. One commented that the more you are a role model, the less permission you have to offload. Others commented that text or email was more efficient.

That syncing feeling – the neuroscience of listening

She recounts the story about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg who set a personal challenge in 2017 to talk to more people about their lives and the future. It was difficult. She reported that people mentioned bad listening behaviours as;

  • Interrupting
  • Responding vaguely or illogically to what you have said
  • Looking at a phone, watch, room or otherwise away from the speaker
  • Fidgeting

She notes that listening is more of a mind-set that a checklist of dos and don’ts. It’s a particular skill that develops over time by interacting with all kinds of people without an agenda.

You hear before you are born and hearing is one of the last senses you lose before you die. Hearing is passive. Listening is active. Neuroscientist Uri Hasson found listeners brains show the same neural pattern as the speakers – this coupling or syncing of brain waves is visible and measurable proof of the transmission of thoughts, feelings and memories.  People with similar sensibilities gravitate towards one another.

Attachment theory is the idea that our ability to listen and connect with people as adults is shaped by how well our parents listened and connected with us as children. Often people spend their lives seeking or creating circumstances that reproduce what they knew in childhood.

She reflects on various programmes and interventions to address the lack of resonance between parent and children. These programmes use a measuring system that considers several dimensions of listening including emotional awareness and body positioning. To listen well is to figure out what is on someone’s mind and demonstrate that you care enough to want to know. Evolution gave us eyelids so we can close our eyes but no corresponding structure to close off our ears which suggests listening is essential to our survival.

Listening to your curiosity – what we can learn from toddlers

Here she considers the skills of a former Central Intelligence Agency (which recruits good listeners to be agents rather than train them in listening) operator who now spends time in “fireside chats” with prospective employees of his clients. Listening is more an art than science and is the neglected stepchild of communications research. It is defined as “the acquisition, process and retention of information in the interpersonal context”.

The advice is to show that you are paying attention. Listening requires, more than anything, curiosity. What is curiosity and why is it important in business relationships? (Video) ( The author returns to attachment theory – if you have someone in your life who listens to you and who you feel connected to then the safer you feel stepping out in the world and interacting with others. This is called having a secure base.

Author and historian Studs Terkel made a career out of curiosity. “The most valuable lesson I’ve learned as a journalist is that everybody is interesting if you ask the right questions”. Why are questions so important? (Questioning skills) ( She mentions Dale Carnegie’s great book and his goal to leave an exchange having learned something.  Book review “How to win friends and influence people” by Dale Carnegie (

She mentions Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA, who would stroll around stores talking to customers and employees. Listening is an eagerness to understand someone else’s worldview (with a lack of presumption).

Experiments by University of Chicago with bus and train commuters who were told to find out something interesting about the other person and to share something about themselves found that people who talked to strangers were the happiest.

Human beings detest uncertainty in general and in social situations in particular. Yet in uncertainty, time seems to slow down and you feel more fully engaged. Thanks to the brain chemical dopamine you get a greater surge of pleasure from chance encounters. People are fascinating because they are unpredictable.

There’s a story about a CIA operator talking to a nuclear scientist to obtain information about Osama Bin Laden. Rather than being adversarial and interrogating him, he listened for things in common and gradually built rapport (and thus obtained the information he sought).

I know what you’re going to say – Assumptions as ear plugs

“While you might think you’d be more likely to listen to a loved one than a stranger, in fact, the opposite is often true”. This is because people in long term relationships tend to lose curiosity for each other (the closeness-communication bias). A research study showed that close friends also over-estimated how well they grasped each other.

There’s reference to Robin Dunbar Client relationship management (CRM) – how many close social ( who said that a primary way we maintain friendships is through “everyday talk”.

Layers of friendship” are hierarchical – the top layer has one or two people and the next layer around four people with whom you have great affinity. Without consistent contact, they can easily fall into the realm of acquaintance.

Exceptional friends are those who you can pick up with after a long time – usually forged through extensive and deep listening at some point in your life – usually during an emotionally wrought time. Those in couples therapy can take up to a year to reconnect. Bishop Flores believes that expecting complete understanding is the root of many troubled relationships.

Confirmation bias and expectancy bias are driven by our craving for order and consistency. We categorise (and stereotype) people which can diminish our understanding and distort reality. Without realising, you listen selectively. Making assumptions of uniformity denies that we are all unique.

There’s mention of social signalling and social identity theories on how humans indirectly communicate status and values. The author suggests there’s an inverse relationship between signalling and listening.

(There’s more on assumptions here: Before your set your goals – check your limiting assumptions (

The tone-deaf response

The subtitle for this chapter is “why people would rather talk to their dog” which made me smile.

Research by Graham Brodie (professor of integrated marketing communications) shows people are more likely to feel understood if a listener responds not by nodding, parroting or paraphrasing but by giving descriptive and evaluative information.

Effective listening requires interpretation and interplay. His data suggests that listeners’ responses are emotionally attuned to what speakers are saying less than five per cent of the time. Carl Rogers (an influential psychologist) coined the term “active listening”: “I hear the words, the thoughts, the feeling tones, the personal meaning, even the meaning that is below the conscious intent of the speaker”.

Gary Noesner was the FBI’s lead hostage negotiator for 10 years. He thinks of people’s stories as two concentric rings (like a doughnut) – the facts on the inside surrounded by the more important feelings and emotions on the outside.  “It’s not really what happens to us in life but how we feel about it”.

Research shows that mass shooters are typically not psychotic but depressed and lonely and a striking commonality amongst mass murderers is a profound alienation from society. Noesner’s success is down to him being authentic, getting the sense that you are his only focus when he talks and people reporting that they didn’t know what he said but liked the way he said it.

Talking like a tortoise – Thinking like a hare (the Speech-Thought Differential)

The average person talks at 120-150 words a minute which takes up a tiny fraction of our mental bandwidth so our mind can wander during conversations. Ralph Nichols (regarded by many as the father of listening research) says “The use, or misuse, of this spare thinking time holds the answer to how well a person can concentrate on the spoken word”.

If we miss parts of the narrative we unconsciously (and often incorrectly) fill in the gaps. The author suggests that smart people are often worse listeners because they come up with more alternative things to think about and are more likely to assume they know what the person is talking about. She also suggests that people with higher IQs also tend to be more neurotic and self-conscious which means worry and anxiety are more likely to hijack their attention.

Nichols found that two months after a short talk, most people had retained only 25%. He suggests one of the greatest barriers to following someone’s narrative is the nagging concern about “what we’re going to say when it’s our turn”. A pause following someone’s comments can work to your advantage, as it’s a sign of attentiveness. You can also say “I’d like to think about that”.

Heinz Kohut (psychoanalyst) suggested that repaired rifts are the fabric of relationships rather than patches on them. There’s discussion of how often we fail to pay full attention when people first introduce themselves as we are distracted by our thoughts that are sizing them up. Good listeners pick up on the sub-text of what people say. Good listeners use their excess brain capacity to notice things, gathering more than just words.

Listening to opposing views – why it feels like being chased by a bear

Gillien Todd’s negotiation course at Harvard Law School tells students to be mindful of their internal stances or attitudes while listening. It should be one of curiosity. Neuroscience shows that brain activity increased when their beliefs were challenged – putting them in fight, flight or freeze mode where it is incredibly hard to listen. You must remind yourself to take a calm, open and curious stance rather than an angry, aggravated or alarmed stance.

There’s an interesting diversion into indigenous tribal traditions in North America and Africa – only the holder of the talking stick can speak while everyone else listens. There’s a suggestion that we only become secure in our convictions by allowing them to be challenged.

Ralph Nichols advised listening for evidence that you might be wrong rather than listening to poke holes in the other person’s argument. Engaging in higher order thinking is what tamps down activity in your amygdala (which creates the fight, flight and fear response). Research shows there is an inverse relationship between amygdala activity and activity in the areas of the brain involved in careful listening (noting people with an overactive amygdala are more apt to suffer from anxiety and depression). Whilst in the past our amygdala helped us fight or flee from existential threats like lions, tigers and bears – today our biggest worries tend to be social rejection, isolation and ostracism. Psychotherapist Carl Rogers A general law of interpersonal relationships? ( suggested listening to opposing viewpoints is the only way to grow as an individual.

There’s reference to poet John Keats – that good listeners have negative capability (cognitive complexity) – they are able to cope with contradictory ideas and grey areas. The conclusion is to accept the legitimacy of the other person’s point of view.

Focusing on what’s important – listening in the age of big data

Surprisingly, this chapter discusses qualitative research conducted through focus groups (Robert Merton is seen as the father of focus groups) and their role on product development. And the current trend to collect data instead using technology which is cheaper than focus groups. The author reflects on a focus group expert – Naomi Henderson who authored Secrets of a Master Moderator. Naomi’s skills lie in her uncanny ability to shift her frame of reference to see things as others would. And she asks questions in a way that doesn’t rob people of their stories. Her tip is to avoid asking “Why?” as it tends to make people defensive. Instead, she encourages with statements such as “Tell me about…” She has the listener’s demeanour – exceptionally calm and an expression that transmit interest and acceptance.

There’s a great quote from researcher Matthew Salganik “Using social media data to learn about human behaviour is like learning about human behaviour by watching people in a casino. It’s a highly engineered environment that tells you about human behaviour, but it’s not typical human behaviour”.

Improvisational listening – A funny thing happened on the way to work

There’s reference to Google’s 2012 Project Aristotle study to find out what made a great team. After three years they reached some conclusions about what made the most cohesive and effective teams – where members spoke in roughly the same proportion, known as “equality in distribution of conversational turn taking”.

The best teams also had higher “average social sensitivity” – they were good at intuiting one another’s feelings based on tone of voice, facial expressions and other non-verbal cues. Non-Verbal Communication (NVC) – the basics (Video) ( Essentially, they were good at listening to each other – and this created psychological safety  (this post describes psychological safety and considers the humanist psychotherapeutic tradition which focuses on the need for empathy, congruence and positive regard A general law of interpersonal relationships? (

There’s an interesting observation that listening is your job. And quotes that nearly all job growth since 1980 has been in occupations with higher levels of social interaction. And quotes HBR: “The time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more”.

One method to improve employee’s listening skills is improvisational comedy – as you must give over control and really be in the moment.  Listening is essential to being funny.

Other listening intensive activities include speaking with one voice and mirroring. The mirroring exercise was also adopted by psychoanalyst Carl Jung. The same techniques are taught to those with social anxiety or are on the autism spectrum.

Conversational sensitivity

Different people take different things away from the same conversation. Psychologists call this conversational sensitivity (picking up hidden meanings and nuances in tone). It’s thought to be a precursor to empathy  An introduction to emotional intelligence (EQ) and empathy (Video) (

It is also related to cognitive complexity. Emotional resonance is where people feel known and appreciated and they are then more willing to share. Demonstrate interest either by learning about people beforehand or being inquisitive in the moment.

It is estimated that English has about a million words and is expanding all the time. Linguistic relativity, also known as Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, holds that a person’s native language influences how they see or experience the world. But often it is your emotions and personal sensitivities that get in the way of understanding those you listen to.

Research indicates that people who have a high degree of self-awareness and a related concept known as self-monitoring are better listeners in part because they know the sorts of things that lead them to jump to the wrong conclusions and are thus less likely to do so. Psychoanalysts have to go through their own analysis so that their own issues don’t get in the way of understanding the feelings of those they are trying to help. A psychoanalyst who studied with Freud said “to listen well is to note the feelings that bubble up form one’s own unconscious”.

Careful listening can be abused by some who use what they learn to manipulate. Studies have shown that those who are well motivated tend to be more accurate in their perceptions. We often miss lies as well as truths because when someone says something that doesn’t make sense most of the time we are unlikely to stop the conversation and ask for clarification. People may be reluctant to ask for clarification as they fear they may look dense.

Listening to yourself – the voluble inner voice

We all talk to ourselves. Psychologist Charles Fernyhough specialises in inner dialogue. Inner dialogue fosters and supports cognitive complexity – the ability to tolerate a range of views, make associations and come up with new ideas.

Early research indicates that the voices that get replayed in one’s head echo those heard in childhood. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is about learning how to talk to yourself differently.

Supporting, not shifting, the conversation

There’s a story here about Lady Randolph Churchill describing what was called by Charles Derber as the support response. This encourages elaboration from the speaker to help the respondent gain greater understanding – it is supportive and evaluative feedback. The opposite is the shift response (conversational narcissism) which directs attention away from the speaker towards the respondent.

“To listen openly takes a certain amount of adventurousness and even some courage because you don’t know where you may end up”.

Research indicates both women and men view women as more open and empathic listeners. Some evidence suggests women focus more on relational and personal information whereas men are more attentive to fact-based information (there’s a similar view expressed – females more empathic focused and male more system focused in “The Essential Difference” by Simon Baron-Cohen).

The author says that through her interviews the idea that women were better listeners was a recurring theme. Marriage and family researcher John Gottman’s many studies indicate good interactions must outnumber negative one by at least five to one for a relationship to succeed.

There’s good advice too that people usually aren’t looking for solutions from you, they just want a sounding board. People reflectively resist and resent directives.

There’s reference to the Quaker practice of “clearness committees” – where around six members convene to listen to the focus person lay out the problem. Then committee members ask what they call “faithful” questions – to help the focus person go deeper so an answer might emerge. The approach is now taught at retreats sponsored by the Center for Courage and Renewal. Open and honest questions don’t have a hidden agenda of fixing, saving, advising or correcting.,  What is Socratic questioning? (Questioning skills) (

Other research showed that when mothers just listened to their children describe solutions to pattern recognition problems, without assistance or critique, it improved their children’s later problem-solving ability. There’s other advice on how parents can best talk to their children.  There’s another great quote “What is love but listening to and wanting to be a part of another person’s evolving story?”

Hammers, anvils and stirrups – turning sound waves into brain waves

There’s a story here about how we can tune into one person’s voice at a busy airport. There’s an explanation of how the brain perceives sound – from the two auditory cortexes to the Wernicke area (for comprehension of speech) in the left side of the brain. The brain processes words, pitch, loudness and tone as well as the flow of tone (prosody). It explores the mind-altering effects of prejudicial information and suggests listening to as many sources as possible to keep your brain agile.

There is also a right ear advantage for understanding the meaning of speech – as it is routed first to the left side of the brain (where Wernicke’s area is located). And a left ear advantage when it comes to the recognition of emotional aspects of speech. This has implications for how you answer the phone.

There’s a description of the anatomy of the ear – the tympanic membrane which vibrates the tiny bones (hammer, anvil and stirrup) and sends sound waves through the fluid filled cochlea which is lined with tiny hairs. From each hair there are bristles called stereocilia and it is these that tickle the nerve endings when sounds are received.

A typical conversation occurs at sixty decibels but music through earbuds at high volume is 100 decibels. Permanent damage can occur after just 15 minutes. Experts have started referring to teenagers today as “Generation Deaf” because earbud and headphone use is ruining their hearing. 15% of Americans, around 48 million people, have hearing loss.

Mondegreen is a common mishearing of song lyrics. Mishearings are also due to the McGurk effect – when people get conflicting visual and auditory stimuli. The point is that many people are poor listeners as they have hearing loss – and a resulting inability to connect with people.

Listening is a visual enterprise as well as aural experience. Even in perfectly audible conversations, lip reading is responsible for as much as 20% of your comprehension. There’s evidence that some facial expressions are an involuntary pre-language. There are also technological reasons contributing to your disinclination to talk on the phone (i.e. voice calls are lower priority for service providers).

Addicted to distraction

During idle or anxious moments, people used to reach for a cigarette – now they reach for their phone. The compulsion, driven by a fear of missing out (FOMO), prevents sustained attention.

Experts have raised concerns that we are even losing our ability to daydream. Microsoft research found that since 2000, the average attention span dropped from 12 to 8 seconds (goldfish have an attention span of nine seconds). Web analytics experts say the majority of internet users give articles online about 15 seconds before deciding to stay or go. Comedy skits have gone from 15 minutes to five. This is the attention economy.

Since devices took over, the average amount of time people have devoted to listening to one another during their waking hours has gone down almost by half, from 42% to 24%. People listen to audio books at twice the original speed. Apps like Overcast allow people to listen to podcasts in double or triple time – a practice called podfasting.

Psychologists at University of Essex found that the mere presence of a phone on the table – even if it is silent – makes those sitting around the table feel more disconnected and disinclined to talk.

Studies of caregiver-child interactions found that the majority of caregivers ignored their children in favour of their phones. Paediatric experts say such behaviour impairs children’s development.

Open office designs, loud restaurants (with sound levels averaging 80 decibels) and stores and even noisy homes with constant ambient music impact our ability to listen. The idea of multitasking is a delusion and the author quotes psychologist Daniel Kahneman “The often-used phrase ‘pay attention’ is apt: you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget you will fail”.

In 2010 Harvard researchers collaborated on a pilot programme called the Family Dinner Project. Families eating together and sharing stories led to lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression while improving kids vocabularies, grade point average, resilience and self-esteem.

People remember those who listened to them decades later with affection and gratitude.

What words conceal and silences reveal

This section starts with the story of a top salesman sharing that his success comes not from speaking or talking but from listening intently to the people he meets – “I’ve learned to be quiet”. His willingness to hear customers’ stories made them less guarded and more trusting towards him. He has a high tolerance for silence (what the author calls “dead air”).

When people speak English, there is rarely any pauses between speakers. By contrast, people in Japan allow longer gaps in conversations. There’s similar comfort with silence in Nordic countries – most notably Finland. But the author notes that people universally don’t like so-called loss of conversational flow.

Research shows that being able to comfortably sit in silence is actually a sign of a secure relationship. Higher status people also aren’t as likely to get agitated by gaps in conversation. In Western cultures, people tend to interpret silences longer than about half a second as disapproval, sanction or ostracism so they rush to say something to try to raise their standing.

The author adds “You get so much more out of interactions when you allow people the time and space to gather their thoughts”. She returns to the Quakers who have something called “waiting worship” where congregants assemble and sit in silence so they are open and available to divine insight. She quotes a composer and music educator who suggests silence is a “pocket of possibility”.

The morality of listening

While gossip has a negative connotation, it actually has a positive social function.

As much as two thirds of adult conversation is gossip (defined as at least two people talking about someone who is absent). There’s a large body of evidence indicating that listening to gossip is an intelligent activity and essential to adaptation. (Interestingly, a colleague Kathryn Waddington recently published a book on “Gossip and Organizations” focusing on the value of gossip in health and university workplaces).

Robin Dunbar suggests only 3-4% of gossip is truly mean-spirited. He suggests that, like primates who groom each other, gossip serves a social purpose. He also observes that people in large parties tend to naturally form conversational pods of two to four people. We survived as a species by co-operating as we foraged for food and hunted big game – and listening played a key role in this.

When to stop listening

The author mentions a professor who studies laughter – and the idea that human laughter evolved from apes panting. There’s mention of Grice’s four maxims of our conversational expectations (the social contract):

  1. Quality – we expect the truth
  2. Quantity – we expect to get information we don’t already know and nor so much that we feel overwhelmed
  3. Relation – we expect relevance and logical flow
  4. Manner – we expect the speaker to be reasonably brief, orderly and unambiguous

A self-centred conversational style often indicates deep insecurities, anxieties or blind spots.

Careful listening is draining – air traffic controllers are limited to 1.5 to 2 hour shifts before they must take a break. Students in a negotiating class at Harvard Law School are told to listen to the opposing side s if they were going to have to write a newspaper or magazine article about them.

Not listening is hurtful – which is why ghosting (technically, the avoidance/withdrawal strategy) is so painful.


There were a few nuggets in the final section.

  • She reflects on a famous religious shrine and notes that the longest queues are for the confessionals, suggesting a fundamental and urgent human need to be heard
  • When engaging with someone your behaviour (including how you listen) does two things – it helps or hinders your understanding and it strengthens or weakens the relationship
  • Not listening reduces the level of discourse
  • Listening is the epitome of graciousness but it is not a courtesy you owe everyone
  • You learn when you listen

Please let me know if you are aware of any excellent books or resources on active listening skills.

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