You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters” by Kate Murphy is a book I’ve read about, and I can’t wait til I get my hands on it. 

It’s been a struggle to manage an almost digital technology-free class (no laptops, tablets, or phones, although powerpoint presentations are fine, if only to avoid the chalk dust), and one of the reasons I tell my students for taking notes by hand is that we can type faster than we think. Writing, then, gives us more time to process information and actively engage with ideas, making learning more effective. What Murphy tells us now is that we can also think faster than people talk, so it makes sense again to slow down and listen, if we want to understand what we’re told. 

Careful, empathic listening has long been undervalued or taken for granted. People tend to think that as long as you’re not hard of hearing, you’re good. However, that only refers to enabling, physiological conditions. Good listening requires, besides, paying attention, becoming aware of the what (text), how, and why people say (context) what they do. But for this, first, you have (to learn) to hold your peace; that is, to keep quiet and listen.

Listening demands sustained attention or concentration, which makes it very difficult nowadays. Impatient and pressed for time, we are prone to interrupting; easily bored and unable to focus, we quickly glance at our phones; convinced of our own brilliance and self-worth, we eagerly speak our piece and dish out our two cents. We even avoid calls, finding them intrusive, and prefer text messages instead, which we can answer at our convenience.

Neither do readily available earbuds, headphones, and vr goggles help our state of permanent distraction. These gadgets not only prevent us from listening, but they also stop meaningful dialogue altogether. They isolate us from our surroundings and envelop us in a comfortable, but unreal world, populated exclusively by elements of our own choosing. That is a shame, and worse, its consequences can be tragic. For as Murphy reminds us “Wars have been fought, fortunes lost, and friendships wrecked for lack of listening. it is only by listening that we engage, understand, empathize, cooperate and develop as human beings.

Although I buy into listening being fundamental to all sorts of relationships, personal, professional, and political, however, I disagree that “listening can be more valuable than speaking.” For mutual understanding, which is what the conversation is all about, listening and speaking can only be as valuable as each other. So no problem with investing time, money, and effort in honing rhetorical or public speaking skills, as long as commensurate resources are dedicated to careful listening as well.

Murphy shines a light on the instrumental benefits of good listening. For one, our interlocutors would be more inclined to return to us the favor, if they noticed they have our full attention when they speak. Also, it would certainly be easier to strike a sympathetic chord in others and get them to do as we propose, if we learned more about them by respectfully listening first.

However, good listening could also be a reward unto itself, for it makes us less anxious, more aware and in the moment. Cancelling ambient noise, we become better attuned to ourselves and our surroundings, we focus on the task at hand. All of which help create a greater sense of calm and serenity, which we need to live life to the full.

Are you with me?   

Alejo José G. Sison teaches ethics at the University of Navarre and Georgetown. His research focuses on issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and the common good. He blogs at Work, Virtues, and Flourishing from which this article has been republished with permission.  

Alejo José G. Sison teaches ethics at the University of Navarre and Georgetown. His research focuses on issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and...