The ability to listen isn't just an admirable trait; it's essential to your career. And according to You're Not Listening author Kate Murphy, we're all pretty bad at it. Here's how to do better.
Hey, there—are you listening? I mean, really listening?
The modern world sometimes feels like a constant run through a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant. Things are flashing and binging at us all day, small rewards are ever-available with a single click, and sitting still, letting it all wash over us, is hard to do.
It's no wonder Kate Murphy, author of You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters, claims that so many of us have gotten so bad at listening.
And while being a bad listener doesn’t make you a bad person, it may hold you back professionally. Whether your goal is landing a new job, getting promoted, building better relationships, or bumping up your productivity or innovativeness, listening is something you definitely want to improve.
Click the audio player above to listen to my interview with Kate to glean everything you can from her wisdom and insights. I'll distill the essentials below.
Listening skills—the good, the bad, and (hopefully not) the ugly
In conducting countless interviews for her book, Kate quickly learned that nearly everyone is able to describe a “bad listening” experience. The telltale signs—someone looking at their watch, interrupting you, checking their phone, changing the subject—are universal.
We’ve all been on the receiving end of bad listening. It leaves us feeling disrespected, as though our time, ideas, concerns, or opinions aren’t worth the other person’s attention. We feel devalued.
How to listen better
Leaving others with that experience of disrespect is not only, well, disrespectful, but it has an actual impact on your professional success. And not a good kind of impact. So let’s start by looking at Kate’s suggestions around how to bump up your listening game.
Focus. Don’t multitask or check your phone. Recognize listening as an active process that requires your full attention.
Let the speaker finish. Kate says “the brain is a predicting mechanism.” When someone is speaking, our brain is trying to finish their sentence or idea. But you may be mistaken about where they’re headed. So practice letting go of assumptions.
Let go of "prebuttals." It’s become common practice to begin formulating a response before the other person has completed their idea. Our brains can’t listen and formulate well at the same time. Don't think about how you're going to respond until the other person has finished speaking. It's okay to ask for a moment to think, too!
Ask probing questions. Listening isn’t just a thing we do in the silence—asking questions is part of our process of collecting and perceiving information. So asking probing questions—the kind that really demonstrates you've heard what’s been said and you're digging a layer deeper. The answers can help you gain new insights.
Summarize. Like asking questions, summarizing also requires you to take the floor for a moment. It's a great way to make sure you've understood the other person, and also to earn the trust of the speaker by making them feel confident that they've been heard.
How do you apply these skills to achieve your goals?
Okay, so now you have a sense of how to be a better listener. But how does any of this really help you achieve your career goals?
Great question. Let’s run through a few scenarios.
Get a new job or promotion
You need to impress the hiring leader or your boss. They need someone who can do things, deliver results, not just listen. Right?
Well, as Kate would say, the best way to demonstrate both what you’ve done and what you’re able to do is to really understand what the person responsible for promoting you is looking for. When you listen for the nuance in what the hiring leader is asking, or in how they describe their company culture or their customers, you can lean away from fancy buzzwords (which impress no one) and instead answer in simple language that is precise and on-point.
Maybe in your last job, you launched a marketing campaign that delivered outstanding results and you can’t wait to talk about that. Great. But positioning that story well relies on your listening.
Has the hiring leader been emphasizing collaboration or independence? Are they seeking someone purely results-driven, or do they need someone with strong leadership capability? By listening well, you can decide whether your story is about how you led a team to that successful campaign, or about a time when you took the ball and ran with it. Both versions are true, but using language and context that matches the interviewer’s will bump up the impact.
You’re looking to get more done. Me, too! So how does listening help this cause?
The key to productivity, as Kate might say, isn’t being faster. It’s about having more clarity upfront on what you need to deliver. Half-listening and making assumptions may get you to a finish line sooner, but it may just be the wrong finish line.
Imagine that your boss asks you to prepare some slides she needs in order to update the CEO on a project. She needs them ASAP.
Great! What an opportunity to impress! You race to your desk, crunch numbers, build slides, and have them on your boss's desk the next morning. She looks through the slides and says, “This is a great summary of the work, but the CEO actually wants to do a deep dive on the budget. Would you please redo these?”
Of course, your instinct when someone asks you to finish a task ASAP is to dive right in without "wasting time" on questions. But maybe you could have said something like "I can hear that you’re in a hurry and I don’t want to slow us down, but is there anything specific you’d like me to highlight or focus on?"
By taking this approach you would have both demonstrated you were listening to the urgency in her voice and clarified her objectives upfront. By listening, and taking a moment to ask an important question, you could have ensured that the first draft would also have been the final.
Innovation and creativity
Now let’s address innovation and creativity. Kate says it all in this wonderful story she shares in her book.
In the 1950s, Betty Crocker launched a new product designed to appeal to “busy homemakers.” It was a brownie mix that included everything. All you had to do was add water and bake.
The product launched and it tanked. And the company couldn’t understand why.
Rather than making assumptions and attempting to fix a mystery-problem, they opted to host some focus groups and really listen. What they heard was surprising. The women didn't feel good about the cake mix because Betty Crocker had made it too easy. Without having to crack an egg, using the mix felt like cheating. (Hey, it was the 50s.) They wanted to feel like they were serving something homemade.
So the company removed the powdered egg from the mix, and now the baker was required to crack eggs. Product sales soared.
Too often we think innovation has to be high-tech or industry-shifting. But creativity doesn’t always require a lightning bolt. Asking some questions about what’s working and what’s not—and really listening to the answers—can provide all the inspiration required.
Imagine how many opportunities we leave on the table every time we don’t ask the question and just listen. What problem will you go solve, what goal will you go achieve by just listening?