I’m All Ears: Becoming a Better Listener

April 6, 2021 Updated: April 6, 2021

So you’re at a party with friends, and Steve asks what you’ve been reading lately. You launch into a description of Sarah Bakewell’s “How to Live, A Life of Montaigne,” her biography of the “father of the essay,” telling Steve enthusiastically how much you’re learning from this book and how you want to read some of the Frenchman’s essays. Less than two minutes into your narrative, you notice that while he’s nodding at the appropriate places and saying such things as “interesting” or “wow,” Steve is looking past you at the treats the hostess is bringing to the hors d’oeuvres table. You might as well be talking to the sofa.

Or, even worse, a friend is telling you about his camping trip with his sons last weekend. He mentions to you the canoe they rented for an afternoon, and that word canoe sends you back to our own childhood when you used to hit North Carolina’s Yadkin River in that yellow fiberglass canoe your father had bought. Man, those were the days. You think of that time when you were still in your mid-teens, and your dad let you and your younger brother make an overnight river trip together, and how you had camped on an island. Why, you wonder, did you give up canoeing? Maybe you should consider buying a canoe for you and your own kids. Maybe—

“So what do you think?” your friend asks.

That’s when you realize you’ve lost the entire thread of the conversation.

Most of us have experienced these breakdowns in communication.

Because many of us are poor listeners.

You’re Not Listening

In “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters” (Celadon Books, 2019), Kate Murphy takes a long look at our listening skills and concludes most of us come up short in that department. A journalist who has spent much of her career interviewing people, she’s found that “whether it’s a person on the street, CEO, or celebrity—I often get the sense that they are unaccustomed to having people listen to them. When I respond with genuine interest to what they are saying and encourage them to tell me more, they seem surprised, as if it’s a novel experience. … They find in me someone who will finally, at last, listen to them.”

Murphy points to several causes for our inattentiveness: the age of distraction which we inhabit, making assumptions about people’s opinions before we hear them out, thinking of our response rather than listening to an argument, and the fast pace of life that makes us impatient when the speaker is fumbling with words or thoughts.

This disconnect is unfortunate, because as Murphy tells us near the end of “You’re Not Listening,” “Not listening reduces the level of discourse. … A listener has a reactive effect on the speaker. As a result, careful listening elevates the conversation because speakers become more responsible and aware of what they are saying.”

To find evidence for her premises, we have merely to look to America’s public forum, where all too often everyone is talking—or more likely, shouting—and no one is listening.

couple talking
It’s easy to interrupt someone in a conversation, but try to let the person speak until he or she is finished. (fizkes/Shutterstock)

Name Tags

In one chapter, “Listening to Opposing Views,” Murphy addresses the anger and misunderstanding that damages so much of our current political discourse. When we hear those who describe themselves as conservative or progressive, for example, we immediately make vast assumptions about their beliefs.

We do the same when we label each other in less contentious conversations.

Suppose you asked a stranger that all-American question, “What do you do?”

“I’m retired, but I was a chemist for a pharmaceutical company,” he replies.

Some among us might instantly categorize him as a scientist, a black-and-white “Just the facts, ma’am” sort of guy, and leave it at that.

Yet if we dug a little deeper, we might find a loving husband, a father and grandfather, a guitarist, a guy who loves sailing and who restored his own boat, and a motorcyclist. Instead of searching him out and listening to his story, we stop asking questions and make him a caricature.

Let me come closer to home. If you asked me how I make my living these days, I would say, “I’m a freelance writer.” This label may sound romantic—heck, it even sounds romantic to me—but the unvarnished truth is that for hours every day of the week, I apply my bottom to a chair and my fingers to a keyboard. Every morning I say to myself, sometimes aloud, “Let the magic begin,” and most often something spills out of me onto the screen of my laptop. Otherwise, however, any outside observer would conclude I lead a life as dull as dishwater.

But here’s the point: I’m much more than this single tag. I’m a father and grandfather, a man with some good habits and some bad who has given a bit to the world while at the same time making enormous mistakes.

It’s called being human. And listening to others makes all of us more human.

Faking It

Some companies, as Murphy tells us, offer workshops in listening to their employees, especially those in sales. Some of these are effective, but many simply provide the tools for a surface appearance of listening. Nodding at the right places, repeating the client’s words—“We are looking for faster deliveries at lower prices,” “Faster deliveries at lower prices, got it”—or exhibiting physical interest by leaning forward or chuckling in the right places: these and other tricks may fool the customer, but meanwhile the listener may be missing important information that the customer is attempting to impart.

Long ago, I knew a seminarian who took a class in clinical psychology where his instructor trained the students to say, “I hear you” from time to time when counseling parishioners. For several years afterward, this young man would tote out that expression even in casual conversations, which always made me smile because he clearly was more interested in pretending to hear me than in listening.

Some Tips

Like Kate Murphy, I sometimes interview people. Many of these subjects are homeschooling moms—I write a column called “Featured Families” for a home education magazine—and all of these interviews I conduct by phone. Because we don’t see each other, I must rely on verbal nuances—a sudden laugh, a touch of sadness in the voice—to help drive the interview. Though I don’t consider myself a particularly good listener in my daily life, I have discovered some devices that make for solid interviews. Here are a few of them:

Develop a rapport with the speaker. Be pleasant from the start. Sincerely ask about her day.

Ask a question and then allow her to answer the question. Anyone who listens to talk radio knows that many of these on-air hosts will ask their callers a question, and just as the caller is making an important point, the host interrupts. It irritates me as a listener when the host barges in like this, and I’m sure it offends some of the callers.

So if you ask a question—“What are you reading these days?”—allow the person to answer in full. Far more often than not, when I use this tactic during interviews, the mom on the other side of the line will give me many more details than if I kept badgering her with questions.

Look for nuance during the conversation. We speak not only with our tongue and lips, but with our facial and body expressions as well. A small example: We ask a friend, “How are you doing?” and she replies, “I’m fine,” but she follows that assertion with a sigh and slumping shoulders. If we catch those signs, we might follow up with “No, really. How are you doing?”

Allow for the unexpected. Several times over the last three years, a few of these homeschool moms I interviewed broke down and wept on the phone, traumatized by a grown son who had repudiated his education and his parents, by a husband who was just diagnosed with stage-4 cancer, by remembering the death of a young daughter. When we truly listen to others, they may open up and share their brokenness with us.

Listening Is Not a Requirement

Of course, improving our listening skills doesn’t mean we have to listen to everyone who crosses our path. As Murphy writes, “To be a good listener does not mean you must suffer fools gladly, or indefinitely, but rather helps you more easily identify fools and makes you wise to their foolishness. And perhaps most important, listening keeps you from being the fool yourself.”

Once when I was in a conversation with a friend, who is not a fool, by the way, she was going on about some subject—was it a trip to the grocery store?—and I finally raised my hand and said, “Too much information.” She laughed, in part because she recognizes her proclivity for detailed description, and our conversation moved on.

We Can Learn by Listening

Listening takes work. For most of us, and I include myself, it doesn’t come as naturally as talking.

A friend of mine, John, is a great talker, particularly around me, but he’s also a great listener. An example: A couple of years ago, while buying an ice cream cone when he was visiting here in Front Royal, he asked the vendor, who turned out to be the owner as well, about her business. As their conversation progressed, she explained why she preferred to hire school teachers for the summer instead of teenagers, how her ice cream truck had come to occupy the lot on which it sat, how long she’d been in business, and why she favored certain ice cream flavors. She shared these facts not just because John asked her questions, but also because he listened to her.

When we listen, we learn.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.