At work, we're taught to lead the conversation.
On social media, we shape our personal narratives.
At parties, we talk over one another. So do our politicians.
We're not listening.
And no one is listening to us.
Active listening is about curiosity and patience - about asking the right questions in the right way. Listening has the power to transform our relationships and our working lives, improve our self-knowledge, and increase our creativity and happiness. It may take effort, but it is a skill that can be learnt.
This book will transform your conversations, your relationships and your life.
Kate Murphy is a journalist who is known for her ability to make complex subjects accessible to the general reader.
It is timely that this book should appear now, given the number of students being taught to deliver persuasive rhetoric to an audience, using every possible technique to share their opinions. Not to mention the huge number of rants that appear on social media every day, and the self-serving political speeches delivered by hopeful parliamentary candidates! Murphy contends that communication is a two-way process where the listener is just as important as the speaker - and that if this process is carried out correctly, then the result is a win for all. Referring to her own experiences as a professional writer and interviewer, she unpacks the process of active listening, outlining ways of engaging as a listener so that the ideas and experiences of the speaker are understood - and are seen to be understood.
The many examples included in the book illustrate in different ways just how important it is for communication to be mutually beneficial. She suggests ways in which the listener can convey to the speaker that the message has been received, not through body language, but through the use of relevant questions and comments which underline the understanding. Whether or not the listener agrees with the speaker is not the issue; what matters is that there is a sharing of ideas and an acknowledgement of where each is coming from.
Two things impressed me about this book. First, the arguments are clearly presented. Murphy does not use big words or seek to impress by venturing too far into the realms of psychology. The pitch is very firmly aimed at the average person who might not know a great deal about the finer points of human behaviour but can understand a down-to-earth presentation and learn from it. That is not to say that the text is dumbed down; it is simply that Murphy has used the same technique as that used by competent educators, the technique of presenting an argument in a way that is accessible to most readers.
The second thing that impressed me was the wealth of research that has gone into the work. I was still on the first page of the introduction when I encountered the first declaration (of many) that challenges current perceptions: "...listening is arguably more valuable than speaking". She then went on to quote both Calvin Coolidge and Epictetus to support this notion. Oh yes, I thought, a name dropper. But has she included a reference to the source material? It turned out that she had, and most thoroughly. Every quote, every reference to a person that has inspired her conclusions, has been annotated in the 39 pages of Notes that appear at the end of the text. There is also a separate index for cross-referencing.
The subject matter is divided into chapters, although there is some overlap between them. The material is up to date with Brexit and Donald J. Trump ("My primary consultant is myself!") both appearing early in the book; Facebook, Tinder and Snapchat are all mentioned as some of the areas where people do not really listen to each other. Topics include explorations of the importance of one's physical hearing; the addiction to devices like smartphones which can impact on the ability to concentrate; the complications of not having the same first language; cultural differences in response to language; the role of appropriate body language as opposed to appropriate feedback/questions; and various listening skills modelled by a variety of people from diverse backgrounds and eras.
I enjoyed reading the book - I read it over two days; had I had more time I would have finished it in one sitting. I found it interesting and rather confrontational in places. But that is the sign of a successful argument - if it challenges your thinking, it has achieved its purpose.
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