Kate Murphy is a journalist who makes her living with her listening skills. No skills, no article. For the rest of us it’s not so straightforward. In her new book, You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters, she makes a case that listening is essential to communication. Of course, this seems obvious. One person talks and another listens. That’s communication. But Murphy explains why and how our listening skills are changing. And not for the better.

Just take a look at her chapter titles and you’ll get a sense for her major points. They target subjects such as the neuroscience of listening and why making assumptions stops us from listening. Some chapters are mostly science and others include practical steps, like how to support the speaker rather than shifting the topic away from their content.

In our ever more divided world, the chapter about listening to opposing views was meaningful. Especially because Murphy explains why those conversations make my heart pound and my cheeks flush. Turns out that discussing contentious topics actually activates the “fight or flight” part of our brain, the amygdala. So talking to Uncle Mort over turkey is the conversational equivalent of being chased up a tree by a bear. Or maybe you’re the bear, and now you know why Uncle Mort gets so worked up by the conversation.

Not surprisingly, Murphy includes a chapter on our addiction to distraction. Memorably, she connects checking our phones to the decades-ago tendency to light a cigarette when we needed a conversational pause. And then she compares our dropping attention span, which now averages eight seconds, to goldfish. Because goldfish have an average attention span of nine seconds. That’s according to research conducted by Microsoft, by the way.

If you’ve ever made a point that your conversational partner doesn’t follow, read this book. And when you say, “Wait, what?” in a conversation, let this book be the next thought. “I should read that book by Kate Murphy about listening when it comes out.” Your connection to the people around you depends on it.

My conclusions

I consider myself a good listener. But for various reasons, listening is harder for me than ever. So I was pretty excited when Celadon sent me this advanced reader’s copy. I wanted to know why the world is losing its ability to listen, as I hope you do.

Murphy balances science with wry humor in her writing. She taps into the expertise of master listeners, from hostage negotiators to focus group moderators. The stories from those folks are quite fascinating, and put their advice in context. The resulting narrative drew me quickly through each chapter.

This is an easy read, even though it’s chock full of usable suggestions. It made me aware of moments where I drop the conversational ball by planning my next statement. And I also intend to practice the power of silence more often, thanks to suggestions from a crackerjack salesperson Murphy interviewed.

In a world where we shout our digital opinions to the world, whether anyone answers or not, the art of listening feels like a lost art. Murphy reminds us why. I recommend this book with my whole heart, and only wish more people could read it before the inevitable family gatherings this holiday season. Instead, you’ll have to wait until it publishes in early January 2020. Grab yourself a copy and make listening better your New Year’s Resolution!

Pair with [Dis] Connected: Poems & Stories of Connection and Otherwise, Volume Two, edited by Michelle Halket.


Many thanks to Celadon Books and the author for the opportunity to read an advance copy of this book in exchange for this honest review.