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20200913 – You are not Listening



The main idea of this book is to demonstrate importance of listening as main tool of communication much more important and effective than just talking. Author provides some neurological background of this process, but mainly tries to uncover what impedes listening and how overcome these impediments.


1. The Lost Art of Listening
Author starts with recollection of her experience as interviewer and notes that even famous people she interviewed accustomed to situation when nobody listening to them. She then moves to epidemics of loneliness and links it to people inability to listen to each other. She provides example of Algonquin Round Table – group of writers who regularly meet together to kind of compete in both talking and listening and them use British parliament QA tradition as example of people not listening. She finally concludes that good listeners are difficult to come about.

2. That Syncing Feeling: The Neuroscience o Listening
This chapter starts with review of faulty listening behavior:

  • Interrupting
  • Responding vaguely or illogically to what was just said
  • Looking at a phone, watch, around the room, or otherwise away from the speaker
  • Fidgeting (tapping on the table, frequently shifting position, clicking a pen, etc.)

She then provides characteristics of good listening:

“Hearing is passive. Listening is active. The best listeners focus their attention and recruit other senses to the effort. Their brains work hard to process all that incoming information and find meaning, which opens the door to creativity, empathy, insight, and knowledge. Understanding is the goal of listening, and it takes effort.”

She also refers to research that demonstrate how good listening synchronizes brain activities of interacting individuals. Author also reviews several cases and infer: “To listen well is to figure out what’s on someone’s mind and demonstrate that you care enough to want to know. It’s what we all crave; to be understood as a person with thoughts, emotions, and intentions that are unique and valuable and deserving of attention. Listening is not about teaching, shaping, critiquing, appraising, or showing how it should be done (“Here, let me show you.” “Don’t be shy.” “That’s awesome!” “Smile for Daddy.”). Listening is about the experience of being experienced. It’s when someone takes an interest in who you are and what you are doing.”

3. Listening to Your Curiosity: What We Can Learn from Toddlers
In this chapter author brings in an experienced CIA investigator, who told her that key to interrogation is to find out what people are most concerned with, assure them that they save to express it, and listen carefully. Toddlers are brought in as example of unbounded curiosity and author stresses that such curiosity about other people is indispensable for effective listening to others.  

4. I Know What You’re Going to Say: Assumptions as Earplugs
This is about one of the biggest problems of failure to listen when people convinced that they already know what other is going to say, which is very seldom, if ever, is correct. Author then refer to a number of experiments, which demonstrate this even among people intimately close such as spouses. Author discusses somewhat inverse relationship between signaling and listening and ends the chapter by calling to pay real attention to others, rather than use formalities:” “Staying in touch” or “keeping up” with someone is nothing more than listening to what’s on that person’s mind—the frequency with which you check in determining the strength and longevity of the relationship. It’s all too easy to get complacent about how well you know those closest to you, just as it’s hard not to make assumptions about strangers based on stereotypes, particularly when reinforced by that person’s own overt social signaling. But listening keeps you from falling into those traps. Listening will overturn your expectations.”

5. The Tone-Deaf Response: What People Would Rather Talk to Their Dog
Here author presents research, which “shows that people are more likely to feel understood if a listener responds not by nodding, parroting, or paraphrasing but by giving descriptive and evaluative information. Contrary to the idea that effective listening is some sort of passive exercise, Bodie’s work reveals it requires interpretation and interplay.”

It follows by discussion of mass shooters, crisis negotiations tactic, and examples of how much could be the loss from non-listening.

6. Talking Like a Tortoise, Thinking Like a Hare: The Speech-Thought Differential
Here author discusses an important reason why people are poor listeners:” speech-thought differential, which refers to the fact that we can think a lot faster than someone can talk. The average person talks at around 120–150 words per minute, which takes up a tiny fraction of our mental bandwidth powered by some eighty-six billion brain cells. So, we wander in our excess cognitive capacity, thinking about a multitude of other things, which keeps us from focusing on the speaker’s narrative”.

Consequently: “to be a good listener means using your available bandwidth not to take mental side trips but rather to double down on your efforts to understand and intuit what someone is saying. He said listening well is a matter of continually asking yourself if people’s messages are valid and what their motivations are for telling you whatever they are telling you.”

Author provides a couple simple rules: Avoid thinking about your response and make pauses before replying.

7. Listening to Opposing Views: Why It Feels Like Being Chased by a Bear

This analogy comes from fMRI research that demonstrated that the same area of brain if highlighted in both cases. Author provide a couple examples from politician’s behavior, but states that it is necessity because:” The truth is, we only become secure in our convictions by allowing them to be challenged. Confident people don’t get riled by opinions different from their own, nor do they spew bile online by way of refutation. Secure people don’t decide others are irredeemably stupid or malicious without knowing who they are as individuals. People are so much more than their labels and political positions. And effective opposition only comes from having a complete understanding of another person’s point of view and how they came to develop it.”

  • Focusing on What’s Important: Listening in the Age of Big Data

Author begins this chapter by discussing conferences of Qualitative Research Consultants Association (QRCA), the organization of “professional listeners”. This is kind of opinion research mainly done for marketing purposes, but also for political and ideological sales. One of the most popular tools they use are focus groups. Author explains that quality of focus group is highly dependent on moderator’s ability to listen and extract real opinion with high levels of precision. She provides of example of such high-level professionals and discusses their technics.

  • Improvisational Listening: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Work

Author starts this chapter with Google research on great teams, which discovered that good teams listen to each other. After that she moves to discuss improve comedy as example of improvisational listening when partners had to pick up cues from each other in order to present consistent narrative. Then she explains how this skill promotes collaborative dynamic necessary for success.

  1. Conversational Sensitivity: What Terry Gross, LBI, and Con Men Have Common

This chapter expands on the same topic of listening sensitivity, only this time using example of professional interviewers and con man.

  1. Listening to Yourself: The Voluble Inner Voice

In this chapter author changes direction of listening and talks about listening to one’s own internal voice rather than to others. To illustrate this author provides quote from Feynman: “By trying to put the points of view that we have in our head together and comparing one to the other, we make some progress in understanding and in appreciating where we are and what we are.”

  1. Supporting, Not Shifting, the Conversation

This chapter is about importance of control over conversation and need to focus on other not self. She provides nice example of different approach related by Churchill’s mother:” “When I left the dining room after sitting next to Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But when I sat next to Disraeli, I left feeling that I was the cleverest woman.”

 The practical advice is to suppress impulses to:

  • suggest you know how someone feels
  • identify the cause of the problem
  • tell someone what to do about the problem
  • minimize their concerns
  • bring perspective to a situation with forced positivity and platitudes
  • admire the person’s strength

Author also discusses some other control technics.

  1. Hammers, Anvils, and Stirrups: Turning Sound Waves into Brain Waves

This is more technical chapter, discussing how sound waves turned into electrochemical conditions of neurons of brain, vulnerabilities of human hearing system, and how all inputs are always fractional and scrambled, leaving to the brain process creation of consistent representation of perceived signals. The negative result is that people often hear something that wasn’t said and do not hear something that was. Author also goes a bit beyond hearing system describing how everything else such as facial expressions, circumstances of time and space and so on influence interactions.

  1. Addicted to Distraction

This is about multiple things that distract people from carefully listening: everything from smoking to smart phones. To demonstrate change in psychology author refers to research that found that average attention span decreased from 12 to 8 seconds. Consequently, author promotes such activities as family dinner isolated from external interventions.   

  1. What Words Conceal and Silences Reveal

This is about conversation being much more complex process than just talking because it includes visuals, pauses, inarticulate expressions, and other such things. She provides example of real estate broker who succeeds by not interfering into potential buyers thinking process, patiently waiting for outcome. Author uses as example of strategic use of silence and then discusses other uses for this tool. Here is her conclusion:” Silence is what allows people in. There’s a generosity in silence but also a definite advantage. People who are comfortable with silence elicit more information and don’t say too much out of discomfort. Resisting the urge to jump in makes it more likely you will leave conversations with additional insight and greater understanding. “

  1. The Morality of Listening: Why Gossip Is Good for You

In this chapter author discusses gossip as another useful tool:” While gossip often has a negative connotation, it actually has a positive social function. There’s a reason why as much as two-thirds of adult conversation is gossip, defined as at least two people talking about someone who is absent. Men gossip as much as women, and children are adept gossipers by age five. We all do it (although not with as much flair as my great-great-aunt) because gossip allows us to judge who is trustworthy, who we want to emulate, how much we can get away with, and who are likely allies or adversaries. In this way, listening to gossip contributes to our development as ethical, moral members of society.”

  1. When to Stop Listening

Here author moves from promoting listening to defining when one should stop doing this. She presents four maxims for conversational expectations without which listening is just a waste of time:

  1. Maxim of Quality—we expect the truth.
  2. Maxim of Quantity—we expect to get information we don’t already know and not so much that we feel overwhelmed.
  3. Maxim of Relation—we expect relevance and logical flow.
  4. Maxim of Manner—we expect the speaker to be reasonably brief, orderly, and unambiguous.

After that she discusses ways of withdrawing from conversation and their consequences.


In conclusion author provides example of Catholic priest at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle who is very proficient in listening to people all over the world. She uses this example to stress importance of listening not only as expression of empathy, but also as the way to strengthen relationships and develop understanding of others. Here is the final conclusion:” While listening is the epitome of graciousness, it is not a courtesy you owe everyone. That isn’t possible. It’s to your benefit to listen to as many different people, with as much curiosity as you can muster, but you ultimately get to decide when and where to draw the line. 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. Listening is often regarded as talking’s meek counterpart, but it is actually the more powerful position in communication. You learn when you listen. It’s how you would divine truth and detect deception. And though listening requires that you let people have their say, it doesn’t mean you remain forever”


It’s a nice collection of ideas and examples of listening as highly useful and very complex communication tool without which it is not possible achieving effective interaction with others. Description and discussion of the process is nice, but mainly trivial. Probably the most interesting part is at the end when author discusses when not to listen. I do not remember encountering this kind of advice anywhere else. It is also pretty good in reviewing various distractions and how to deal with them.

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