Book Reading: You’re Not Listening

This blog post is about the book You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy, and in particular my reactions to it from a teacher’s perspective.

First, I want to apologise to Chelsea Avard for borrowing the book from her little student leadership library and holding onto it for a whole year while I got round to reading it and then got round to writing about it. Thanks for your patience and thanks in advance for forgiving me for the slightly battered state the book will be when I return it.

Second, I want to say what an excellent book it is. It has a lot to say about what listening is and is not and how it makes a difference to us in everyday life. It’s full of vivid stories to illustrate and lovely turns of phrase, and it is very clear that Murphy clearly researched it extensively. I would recommend anyone to read it.

Ok, now on to the actual purpose of the blog post. The book is not a teaching book, and it doesn’t even mention teachers as far as I recall, but I am a teacher and I can’t help reading it from that perspective. As a teacher who mostly works one-on-one with students, what Murphy had to tell me felt particularly relevant. And yet I’ve had trouble organising it into a cohesive blog post. I have decided to give up and just list some things I learned. Most of them are about teaching. Some of them are just life lessons. I may or may not distinguish them.

Thoughts from the book

Your brain thinks faster than people speak. Use it to listen better.

In Chapter 6, Murphy clearly describes exactly how conversations feel to me, which is that the person is talking, but my mind is buzzing all around thinking about all sorts of things. Almost all of those things are related to what the other person is saying — memories their stories brought up, how I feel about the way they’re talking, what I am going to say next — but only a small amount is actually about the other person’s meaning.

Murphy asserts this is totally normal because your brain thinks at least twice as fast as the other person speaks. Reading that, I was so glad that I wasn’t some sort of freak. However, she recognised that the problem with this normal state is that you can get wrapped up in your thoughts and miss what the other person is saying. Also, she points out that a lot of what people say isn’t contained in the words they speak, but in their silences and their body language and the things they look at.

What she suggests is to use all that extra mental bandwidth to listen better. Instead of letting your mind wander or worrying about what to say next, direct your attention to all those extra things that aren’t audible that might tell you more about what they mean.

This spoke to me powerfully as a teacher, particularly the bit about missing important things when you are planning what to say. In the MLC with a student, my mind can be very much occupied with what explanation or example I’m going to give the student in response to what they’re saying. But in worrying about this while they’re talking, I am missing important things. I’m missing what they’re telling me about how they feel about their maths. I’m missing the pauses that tell me when they’re figuring things out or struggling to articulate their thoughts. I could be a much more responsive teacher if I used my mental powers to think about their meaning while they are talking rather than think about mine.

You don’t have to respond right away.

The big problem in my line of work with the advice above to use your brain’s bandwidth to focus even more on listening and watching is that you really do feel like it’s your responsibility to respond immediately as soon as the student stops talking with useful explanations or advice. The desire to plan your explanation while they are still talking isn’t just your mind wandering, it’s motivated by a fear that you need to be immediately helpful and clever.

However, Murphy argues that actually silences are really important in conversation. Space between speakers allows everyone time to process. And most importantly, it’s a sign of respect for the speaker that the listener takes time to process. She relates stories of many different cultures around the world where they have an expectation of silence in conversation as a sign of respect. I know students have said to me they appreciate me telling them “just let me think about that for a minute” because then they know I’m working on something good.

I’ve heard this advice about silence before, for example in Making Number Talks Matter, and also in a recent UX Research Methods training. But not until reading Murphy’s book did I connect it to the idea of giving yourself the space to really listen in the first place. Knowing that it’s ok and actually respectful to think quietly before responding to students means that you are free from the expectation to have something ready and you can actually focus on listening interpretively. It has taken a huge worry off my shoulders as a teacher that I wasn’t even aware I was worrying about before.

Assumptions stop you listening.

Murphy has a whole chapter titled “I know what you’re going to say: assumptions as earplugs”, and that title really does sum it up extremely well. It just shows her skill as a writer that she can pack so much meaning into just a title.

The idea is that when you assume things about people, it stops you listening to them clearly, and sometimes stops you listening at all. If you literally think you know what someone will say, then you think you have no need to hear it.

The most shocking thing Murphy does is explain how finishing someone else’s sentences is proof that you’re not actually listening. Yes two people being able to finish each other’s sentences is often used as proof that two people are in sync, but she related stories from marriage counselors who noted that couples who are really familiar with each other just assume the other person doesn’t need to be told things or doesn’t need to tell them things and so people never find out important stuff. 

This idea that assumptions stop you listening really gave me pause, because I have seen it first-hand in my own work. A student asks me a question about Question 3 on their assignment, and I assume they are struggling in the same place I would struggle, so I tell them how to deal with that part, even though it might not be the place they need help at all. A student is studying engineering, so I assume they don’t want to know the theory behind the maths and I only tell them procedures, even though they might actually want to make sense of it. A student asks a question about the topic at hand and I just respond to the key words and the question I assume they probably have, but their actual question is about quite a different thing. A student  is slow to answer my question, so I assume they don’t know and I answer for them, but actually they are just taking time to figure out how to say what they want to say.

There are so many times when I assume what a student wants or needs rather than listening to their actual words and demeanour or seeking more information. I really need to turn off my assumptions and find out more about the actual situation before responding.

People won’t tell you things if they don’t think you want to hear them.

There were a couple of quotes close together that really spoke deeply to me.

“Researchers at the University of Utah found that when talking to inattentive listeners, speakers remembered less information and were less articulate in the information they conveyed. Conversely, they found that attentive listeners elicited more information, relevant detail, and elaboration from speakers, even when the listeners didn’t ask any questions. So if you’re barely listening to someone because you think that person is boring or not worth your time, you will actually make it so.”

“Think of how you, yourself, might tell different people different things. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with the type of relationship you have with them or the degree of closeness. You might have once told a stranger something you hadn’t told anyone else. What you tell, and how much you tell, depends on how you perceive the listener at that moment. And if someone is listening superficially, listening to find fault, or only listening  to jump in with an opinion, then you’re unlikely to make any kind of meaningful disclosure and vice versa.”

The things that spoke most deeply to me were the things that can derail the students I work with saying anything useful:

  • Not worth my time
    Phew this one is hard. All those second- and third-year students who I have said are second and third priority after first-year students, what does knowing they’re not my priority do for them sharing things that are important? But they still have deeply important things about studying and learning maths to discuss, even if I don’t know their content.
  • Listening superficially
    I can do this so easily. I can wait until they say a key word and then launch into an explanation in response, and totally ignore the things they’re saying about how they feel about maths and their experiences studying it, or just ignore how what they say tells me about how much they already understand.
  • Listening to find fault
    How many students’ experience of maths in the past is that someone is waiting for them to be wrong? Knowing this, how might they shut themselves up if the first experience with me is telling them something they did wrong?
  • Listening to jump in with an opinion
    Phew this is so easy to do as a teacher. They’ve come for help, so I feel  the need to provide it as soon as possible, so I wait until they say something I could comment on and make the comment. But they may not want a comment on that thing and they are unlikely to give me what they really want because they know I’m not really listening.

I believe that  to be the best teacher and support worker I can be, I need to know the students’ context and know what they already know, but if I really do believe that, then I need to get out of the way so that they will actually tell me what I need to know in order to help them.

Other people’s thoughts really are more interesting than anything you have pre-prepared to say.

The previous section was about how the way you (don’t) listen affects how much people tell you, and I made it all about how I need information to help people the best I can. Except the thing Is, I think people would prefer someone who actually was interested in what they have to say for its own sake, rather than just as a means to an end. I have been working on fostering the belief that all students have existing thoughts worth listening to, and this book confirmed how true and important this belief is.

This quote says it clearly:

The most valuable lesson I’ve learned as a journalist is that everybody is interesting if you ask the right questions. If someone is dull or uninteresting, it’s on you.

Also it’s just a vibe running through the whole book: it’s not just that it’s good to listen to people, but that people are worth listening to. Listening can be hard work, but it is worth the work, because everyone has something interesting to say, something you can learn from.

It’s not about you: shifting versus supporting.

Murphy spends a lot of time talking about how much time we spend talking and not listening, even when we think we’re listening. She describes two main types of response a listener makes: the shift response and the support response. When you make a shift response, you shift the focus to yourself; when you make a support response, you keep the focus on the other person, supporting them to continue and to share what’s important to them. This is one of her examples:

Sue: I watched this really good documentary about turtles last night.
Bob: I’m not big on documentaries. I’m more of an action-film kind of guy. (shift response)

Sue: I watched this really good documentary about turtles last night.
Bob: Turtles? How did you happen to see that? Are you into turtles? (support response)

I have to say I am repeatedly guilty of the shift response. Just now I responded to someone telling me about something that happened to them with a story about my own experience, when I could have so easily asked them more about theirs. Not to say you should never talk about your own story in a conversation, since of course a conversation moves both ways, but you miss out on so much if you do it too early.

Support responses tend to be questions, where you seek more information from the speaker, but there are lots of questions that are still shift responses. There are ones where you set up what you want them to say such as, “Wouldn’t you agree that …?”,  and the ones which really just describe your own thoughts or shift the conversation to an entirely new topic that was on their mind already. I found it appropriate that the example of this cited in the book was from an academic at a conference.

In my work in the MLC, I am guilty of shift responses so often, especially when the conversation turns to study skills or experience in classes. I always end up just saying what my experience is, when I could learn so much more by finding out about the student’s. You could argue that the students need to know they’re not alone in their frustration, and you could argue that the might appreciate knowing how someone else dealt with similar situations. However, listening just a little longer will also let them know their feelings are valid, and will tell you whether they need advice at all or just want to vent. (Not to mention that my experience as a student is now 20 years old, and might not be as relevant as I feel it is.)

Also I am suddenly reminded of the distinction between focusing and funneling questions: a focusing question while a student is doing problem-solving helps a them student focus on the relevant details at hand so they can use it in their problem-solving, whereas a funneling question pushes them towards a path you the teacher have in your head. This is very similar to the concept of the shift and the support response. Both shift responses and funneling responses are about you, whereas support responses and focusing responses are about them.

The listening itself is what helps people.

The final thing that stood out to me is that people don’t usually want or need your advice. The very act of listening supportively helps people to achieve clarity and sort out what they want to do. Here’s a useful couple of quotes:

Being aware of someone’s troubles does not mean you need to fix them. People usually aren’t looking for solutions from you anyway; they just want a sounding board. Moreover, you shut people down when you start telling them what they should do or how they should feel. … Your answer to someone else’s deepest difficulties merely reflects what you would do if you were that person, which you are not.

The solutions to problems are often already within people, and just by listening, you help them access how best to handle things, now and also in the future. … If you jump in to fix, advise, correct, or distract, you are communicating that the other person doesn’t have the ability to handle the situation.

This is a really hard thing to hear because we are so used to providing advice as the way to help people. It’s particularly hard to hear for someone in my line of work, where people are literally talking to me because they do actually want help. But if I really do believe that people have thoughts of their own and I really do believe that all people are capable of figuring stuff out, then the best way to show that belief is to listen to them. And if I’m honest, whenever I’ve let them, they really do surprise both me and themselves with what they figure out on their own.


This book was full of such interesting and compelling stuff. I’d recommend it to anyone to read. I think I have listening on my mind even more than before after reading it, both in my life and in my work in the MLC. To sum up, here are my titles from above again, to hold onto for the future:

  • Your brain thinks faster than people speak. Use it to listen better.
  • You don’t have to respond right away.
  • Assumptions stop you listening.
  • People won’t tell you things if they don’t think you want to hear them.
  • Other people’s thoughts really are more interesting than anything you have pre-prepared to say.
  • It’s not about you: shifting versus supporting.
  • The listening itself is what helps people.

Seeing them all together really highlights to me how much they interact with each other, and how much they all hang off the idea that other people have a lot to say that is worth hearing. Thanks for reading.

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