We live in a world that offers more way to communicate to more people than ever in history. Cell phones, text, video, podcast, Zoom, and Skype all offer us ways to communicate all day with people all over the globe. With all this extensive communication, why are so many people still lonely?
Up to half of all Americans report feeling lonely some or most of the time according to a recent Cigna study. Some have called it an epidemic, and the advent of social distancing during the Covid crisis hasn't helped. Loneliness especially hits the elderly, many of whom live alone and have lost ties to community such as friends, family, and jobs. Younger people are increasingly susceptible to loneliness, as the lure of social media and technology takes them away from meaningful relationships and into a fast-moving world of tweets and posts from people who don't listen to each other in meaningful ways.
This book is a welcome journey into the physiological and psychological needs for communication, and the most underutilized skill- listening. As a lifelong introvert I'm more of a listener than a talker, but this book was an eye-opener for me in that it shows in detail what we all really need- to be heard and understood.
Kate Murphy is a Houston-based journalist and has taken a deep dive into the art of listening and why we're so bad at it. I gathered six key reasons from this book as to why people in general are terrible listeners.
1- We are addicted to our devices, especially cell phones. The quality of a conversation declines significantly with even the visible presence of a cell phone. People keep their phones with them all day long, taking calls, answering texts, playing games and browsing social media, which often leaves little room for slower-paced, meaningful conversations. Fear of missing out, (FOMO) keeps us from relating directly to the people directly in front of us.
2- We hate to listen to opposing views. When people talk about things that either make us uncomfortable or challenge our beliefs, we react as if their words are an existential threat. People like familiarity and consistency, and any time conversations get difficult they retreat to their bubble. This is especially true with emotional or political topics, which people avoid at all costs if it means they might have to change their view of the world.
3- Our brains move a lot faster than our mouths. People can think much faster than others can speak. So it's very common for attention to wane when other thoughts pop into our heads like "did I turn the oven off?" If the speaker is especially slow or predictable, we are even more likely to check out, which makes any real communication impossible.
4- We have many cognitive biases that cloud our perceptions and judgements. Before someone speaks, we program our brains with what we EXPECT to hear from them based on past history, cultural stereotypes, or roles that the other person inhabit. As a shortcut, we already have a script in our head of what we expect to hear before the person ever opens their mouth. This is especially bad for married couples, who lose interest in their partners and think they know them so well they can predict every utterance.
5- Much of how we relate and connect with people has to do with how our parents communicated with us at a young age. Kate Murphy speaks of secure attachment, when a parent is there for the child and communicates both love and acceptance both verbally and non-verbally. Those with insecure attachment styles, from parents who neglected them, grow up with great difficulty trusting others in communication. If you think the world isn't going to listen to you from a young age, that can have devastating consequences later on.
6- Some 15% or more of Americans have significant hearing loss, either from age or from overexposure to loud noises. Hearing loss means that you miss a great percentage of communications, and your brain tries to fill in the gaps, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
Luckily, the author has some good suggestions on how to be a better listener. Realizing the problems is a great step towards finding the solutions. Put away the cell phone, get a hearing aid, stop being a snowflake, be aware of your limitations and work to improve them and do the work to make things better. The author says we need to be able to tolerate silences during a conversation. Americans tend to jump in much faster than Asians when there's a pause in a conversation, and that little exercise of sitting with the silence while you take in what you've heard is a great step to being more present and understanding.
Instead of the shift response, which steers any conversation to yourself and what you've experienced, the author recommends support responses. When someone tells you what happened to them, don't say "Yeah, that happened to me too," but instead ask "how did you deal with that?" or "how did that make you feel." Open-ended questions are the key to getting people to open up, but they have to come from a genuine sense of curiosity.
If you want to create true intimacy, meaning and connection, you need to be willing to experience uncertainty as you toss aside all your hidden agendas while listening. It's hard, which is why we don't like to do it. We all want to understand and be understood. Humans are wired to connect with each other- that's why loneliness can be so painful.
The book doesn't go too much into the reciprocity problem, where one person is a great listener and the other person is too self-absorbed to listen back. What do you do? Some people will never be great listeners, but many can be trained if spoken to honestly and directly. We all have the right to be understood, and need to chose our circle of friends carefully.
There is a fascinating chapter about listening to your inner voices. which is where we struggle all of the time. Our brains move much faster than the world outside, and we talk to ourselves constantly. The quality of that inner dialogue can be critical to our mental health, because constant negative self-talk can mushroom into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many of us are so afraid of our inner voices that we try to drown them out with drugs, alcohol, media, and busyness, but they always find a way back. Talking to other people is one of the best ways to heal your inner voices. Getting your secrets and fears out in the open and realizing they aren't as bad as they seem is the basis of cognitive behavioral therapy- one of the best tools in mental health treatment. That, plus what you're doing right now- reading uplifting books and blog posts.
We can feel lonely when by ourselves, at work, during parties, in large group events, and almost anywhere. The best cure is the back and forth of true friendship and communication with someone who understands who you are and what you are feeling.
Kate Murphy does an excellent job in bringing in experts like a focus group leader, Second City improv trainer, professional interviewer, and many studies from various scientific fields to back up her discussions. There are people who listen for a living, and to get their input is invaluable.
This is a great book for anyone who'd like to improve their communication skills and increase intimacy and understanding both at home and at work.