In John Mulaney’s 2018 stand-up special, Kid Gorgeous, there’s a throwaway joke I've always loved. Mulaney recounts a conversation he had with a friend. He says, “Anyway…He was talking and I was waiting for him to be done so I could talk. So he’s ‘talk, talk, talk.’ It’s my turn next!”
We’ve all been there (or maybe I’m projecting—I’ve certainly been there): You’re technically “listening” to someone, but in your mind, you’re really just planning what you’re going to say next. It’s…not great.
That’s why I was so excited to talk to journalist Kate Murphy. A New York Times contributor whose work has also been featured in The Economist, Texas Monthly and more, she’s the author of an enlightening—and necessary—book: You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters.
For the book, Murphy interviewed hundreds of people about what it means to be a good listener. The most common response? A blank stare. “Really, without exception, I got a blank stare,” she says. “But at the same time, people can readily tell you what it means to be a bad listener. Things like interrupting, looking at your phone, non sequiturs, that type of thing.” According to Murphy, that goes to show that people have more experience with being interrupted, ignored and not listened to than really being heard.
So we know we have a listening problem. How can we fix it? First of all, Murphy stresses that listening “is not just keeping your mouth shut and waiting for the other person to stop speaking.” Instead, it’s a frame of mind where you’re curious and you want to find out what this person’s story is. So rather than focusing on looking like you’re listening—nodding intermittently, mhm-ing—change your mindset to value listening as a learning experience.
“It’s really more active and thinking, ‘What have I got to learn from this person? What questions can I ask so I can draw that story out?’” She recommends asking yourself two questions after every conversation to gauge how successfully you listened:
1. “What did I learn about that person?
2. “How did that person feel about what we were talking about?”
If you’re able to answer those questions, she says that by definition, you’re a good listener. Or, you’re certainly on your way to being a good listener.
I had also never really thought of listening as a skill to be honed. In the book and during our conversation, Murphy is very clear that like any skill, listening is something that gets better and better with practice. She compares it to meditation, “Where you acknowledge distraction, but then you bring yourself back to focus.” In meditation that means bringing yourself back to focus on your breathing or maybe a mantra. In listening, you’re bringing yourself back to focus on the person who’s speaking.
“And just like with meditation, people can get more and more in the zone the more they’ve done it,” Murphy explains. “People can become virtuosic at being able to focus, and it’s the same with listening.” It’s as simple as, the more you do it, the better you get at it.
While practice may not make perfect, it will help you become someone the people around you value as sounding board and confidante.