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The science behind good listening and why it matters

Anne Brennan, right, of Hingham Mass., speaks as, from left, brother-in-law Steve Marshall, of Hingham, niece Rebecca Malone, and her husband Brian Malone, both of Duxbury, Mass., and nephew Andrew Marshall, of Quincy, Mass., are gathered for dinner in Hingham, Mass., where politics are a frequent, and divisive topic of conversation. (Josh Reynolds/AP)
Anne Brennan, right, of Hingham Mass., speaks as, from left, brother-in-law Steve Marshall, of Hingham, niece Rebecca Malone, and her husband Brian Malone, both of Duxbury, Mass., and nephew Andrew Marshall, of Quincy, Mass., are gathered for dinner in Hingham, Mass., where politics are a frequent, and divisive topic of conversation. (Josh Reynolds/AP)

This rebroadcast originally aired on October 15, 2021.

“How are you?” It’s a question you probably ask every day.

But, how often do you actually listen to what the other person has to say?

Or, think about the last dinner you had with someone. How often were you distracted by your phone? Or by the next table?

How often did your mind wander off to something else – work, your next schedule, maybe the live sports on TV?

So what makes listening so difficult?

This hour, On Point: We look at the science of why you’re not listening, and why that matters.


Kate Murphy, journalist who has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and others. Author of “You’re Not Listening.”

John Wood, Jr., national ambassador at Braver Angels, a national movement aiming to bring liberals, conservatives and others together at the grassroots level. (@JohnRWoodJr)

Also Featured

Jamie Goulet and Kristen Sailor, students at Spring Arbor University.

Avi Kluger, professor of organizational behavior at the Hebrew University.

Naomi Henderson, CEO of the RIVA Training Institute.

Interview Highlights

Are people listening less?

Kate Murphy: “I think we are. And that’s why I wrote the book, which came out right as COVID started. So I was working on it, doing all the research pre-COVID, but have been coping very much with the aftermath in my own personal life. But also all of the mail that I get from readers about how they’re trying to listen, or how they’re listening differently as a result of COVID.

“I think there’s really two ways to look at this. This is making it more difficult to listen. Of course, we are withdrawing from one another because of fear of infection. And so we are in these closer pods where you have an opportunity — a lot of people have found that they have been able to listen to people because they didn’t have the distraction, and they didn’t have to go to a million different engagements. They didn’t feel like they needed to network, they didn’t have this FOMO, fear of missing out, and always trying to be at the next event.

“And so they were at home … so they were available. And available to talk to people in their closest pod or within their families. And they found that they really had richer relationships and conversations. That’s why a lot of people are a little bit reluctant to go back to the always busy, going and meeting a whole bunch of people and always going to the next thing. And really just having smaller circles where you can really listen, and establish and deepen those relationships.

“But at the same time, we were talking about that extra burden. When we’re fearful, we don’t listen. Fear makes people get into that fight or flight mode. And that is the more primitive part of the brain takes over, it’s called the amygdala. And listening is higher-order thinking. And you need to engage different parts of the brain. But the amygdala is kind of like the louder person in the room, and it drowns out everything else in your brain. And so I think you’re seeing in a lot of even political discourse and within society now,- because people are fearful. You see all this yelling and people really being entrenched. And that is fear. It looks like anger, but it’s fear.”

What is the brain doing internally that makes it hard to achieve that higher-order function?

Kate Murphy: “There are a couple of things going on. There are actually quite a few things, as the brain’s a complicated place. But I loved what you said about the brain being pattern seeking. And the brain is actually, we try and conserve energy in the brain. That’s why we do that pattern seeking thing. It’s actually a survival tactic. It is evolutionary. That’s what we do, because our brain is 2% of our weight. But yet it uses up 20% of the energy. Our brains are just little combustion engines. And so if we think we figured out, we don’t want to use any more energy on that.

“So that’s why we create patterns and figure, OK, I don’t need to do any more work. And so that’s the first thing that’s happening. But also the thing that I thought was so really interesting, and so telling about communication and about listening and why it’s so important is what happens in the brain between the speaker and the listener. The brain activity, the neural patterns of the speaker and the listener, the more those patterns mimic or mirror one another, the better the communication.

“So you’ve probably been at a party or maybe when you first met your spouse where there was that moment where you just clicked. You were talking and you were just so into what each other were saying. And we’ve all had that feeling like, Oh, I get you. Or, this person gets me. And that feeling is that sinking up of brainwaves, you can actually see it. It’s measurable, visible proof of the transfer of thoughts, feelings, memories. And so when we say about other people, Oh, you know, we’re totally in sync or we’re of like minds, it’s not an analogy. It’s not a metaphor. It is true. It’s absolutely true.

“And that wonderful mirroring of brainwaves, which is wonderful to see if you’ve seen the studies where they show you how  they sync up, all of a sudden they link. And when that happens, you have the release of all these feel good chemicals. And that’s why it feels so good. When you feel like this person gets me, this person understands me. It’s oxytocin. It’s serotonin. It’s all these wonderful neurochemicals that go through your body. And it’s evolutionarily beneficial.

“The reason why our bodies are doing that, because that’s how you survive, is we were able to survive as a species by cooperating, by communicating like we’re foraging, going after hunting big game. You had to communicate, cooperate or you die. And so this is all beneficial. But  I also want to say that, you know, the science aside, one of the psychologists I interviewed, she called those moments snatches of magic. And they are. Anyone who’s experienced that feeling. It is. It’s a snatch of magic.”

How do competing distractions  interfere with our ability to form connections?

Kate Murphy: “It’s disastrous, to put it very simply. And that’s why I wrote the book. And it’s not just technology, I don’t want people to think [I’m] anti-technology, I like my smartphone as much as anybody else. But it’s not a substitute for those snatches of magic. You can’t get it with a text, you can’t get it with an email. Even something like Zoom or something, especially something like Zoom, because that distorts the facial features and really messes up your brain.

“… But technology is wonderful for a bridge between those moments of when you’re able to get together, and do that kind of listening and just keep in touch. And that can make you feel good, too. You get a text, I’m thinking about you. And you know, I got one of those yesterday. And it does, it makes you feel good. And that’s what technology’s wonderful for. Or just, I’m running late. Or a little emoji. Just, it’s wonderful.

“But in terms of really creating those moments that you really feel restored, and renewed and connected, you need to be with the person and you need to be listening. And it needs to be an ongoing process. And if you don’t make time for that? It really is disastrous. Recall that before the COVID pandemic, we were suffering from a loneliness epidemic. And it’s because we’re not making time to listen to one another. Everybody wants to talk. Technology creates this … everybody’s everybody’s starring in their own movie. It’s all content that’s going out, but they’re not taking anything out.”

Should we do something to moderate our own bodies, our own brains that would make us better listeners?

Kate Murphy: “Deep breaths are always good. They’re always good. Because it … calms down that fear response. It helps you get more centered. It’s a very important thing, that breathing deeply. Just breathe deeply. But also to develop your curiosity. Like I said, make it more important to be curious than to be right. And to go into every conversation with that mindset of how could I be wrong? Instead of, let me prove how I’m right.

“And really try and understand the other person. You don’t have to agree with them. You’re not sanctioning their point of view by listening to it. You’re just understanding it. And by understanding it, that is how we move forward. That’s how you develop creative ideas. It’s how you cooperate. It’s how you find middle ground, or at least a peaceable existence. So to just have this idea of maybe I’m not right, have some humility. That’s how you prepare for any conversation.”

From The Reading List

New York Times: “You’re Not Listening. Here’s Why.” — “‘You’re not listening!’ ‘Let me finish!’ ‘That’s not what I said!’ After ‘I love you,’ these are among the most common refrains in close relationships.”

Harvard Business Review: “The Power of Listening in Helping People Change” — “Giving performance feedback is one of the most common ways managers help their subordinates learn and improve.”

New York Times: “Talk Less. Listen More. Here’s How.” — “When was the last time you listened to someone? Really listened, without thinking about what you wanted to say next, glancing down at your phone or jumping in to offer your opinion? And when was the last time someone really listened to you?”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.