A woman sits on a bed using her phone with another woman in the hallway doing the same

The lost art of listening

In a world full of noise, is anyone being heard?

Innovation Hub

We miss important communication cues when we're not face-to-face.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Images

We have become accustomed to politicians shouting at each other, and confrontational TV talk show hosts who do anything but listen to their guests, but how good are any of us at truly focusing on the words of others in our conversations?

Listening is a lost art, according to Kate Murphy the author of “You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters,” and the cost to our health, our relationships, and our society is steep, she says. Murphy explains how the modern world has shaken our capacity for deep listening and what we can do about it.

Three takeaways:

  • Our inability to listen to each other has contributed to all sorts of problems, including a worldwide loneliness epidemic, says Murphy. In the 1980s, about 20% of Americans said they often felt lonely and left out. By 2018, nearly 50% said they did not have frequent meaningful social interactions, according to studies the author writes about in her book. Murphy also points to a rise in so-called “diseases of distress” associated with loneliness, including suicide, drug addiction and alcohol abuse.  
  • Distracting technology, particularly smartphones, has played a significant role in degrading our ability to listen and connect with others face-to-face, says Murphy. The result is “soul-sucking conversations” that leave people feeling empty and alone. Social media, where everyone is “starring in their own movie,” has also exacerbated the problem, she adds. However, Murphy thinks that the social isolation induced by the pandemic has led to a greater appreciation of the value of in-person relationships.
  • Want to become a better listener? Murphy says it is not hard. A good test, to discover how well you were listening after a heart-to-heart conversation, is to ask yourself two questions. First, what did I learn about the person I just listened to? Second, how did that person feel about what we were talking about? Much can be revealed by nonverbal communication and voice tone, she says, so pay attention to those things as well.