By: Schatzie Brunner

There is an important new book on the market, entitled You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy. The subtitle is What You’re Missing and Why It Matters, written by Murphy, a reporter from Houston, Texas. The author makes some critical points which are relevant to our concerns about depression and suicide. Let me focus on a few of them.

In our current culture, we are told to listen to our hearts or listen to our inner voice or listen to our gut. But when are we encouraged to listen to another person?

This is due in part to our focus both online and in-person on defining ourselves, shaping the narrative, or staying on message. And to quote this book, Murphy says, “…value is placed on what we project, not on what we absorb.” As you may know, I have spent most of my career in communication and making effective presentations. But after reading this book, I’m wondering how many people actually absorbed what was said.

Social media has allowed us to broadcast every thought as well as to filter out anything we don’t agree with. And the result seems to be a growing sense of isolation and emptiness. Our digital lives keep us occupied, but do they nourish us? Do they cultivate depth of feeling?

Everyone knows how it feels when someone listens to them or when someone doesn’t. Because listening is not just hearing, it is paying attention to what is said and how it is said. The good news is that listening, if done well, can be instrumental in helping you understand the people and world around you. Listening enriches your life and enables you to develop wisdom. If you have any doubt, think about how profoundly we can be divided on politics and culture just because we don’t listen or don’t want to listen to other viewpoints.

Before our digital universe became ubiquitous, there was time to explore someone else’s thoughts and feelings. But now, we’ve become compartmentalized by texting or posting on social media. Think about how often we share pictures with others from our phones instead of describing a situation or what we experienced. Murphy states, “…the ability to listen to anyone has been replaced by the capacity to shut out everyone, particularly those who disagree with us or don’t get to the point fast enough.”

And what is happening because we’ve come to this point? People are becoming lonely, and some experts are saying loneliness has become a public health crisis. Studies have shown connections between loneliness and heart disease, stroke, dementia, and even a weakened immune response.

People don’t seem to be lonely because they are alone, but because they feel disconnected. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been teaching connection as the number one ingredient in communication for more than 20 years. Connection is a two-way street with listening as an integral part of the connection.

What’s interesting is that we may have been conditioned not to listen. For instance, remember when you were a little kid, and a parent said, “listen to me,” while holding you by the shoulders, you knew there wasn’t good news ahead. Or when your teacher or little league coach said, “listen up!” It usually meant a list of rules and instructions.

I recently read a quote that said, “The more you’re a role model, the more you lead, the less permission you have to unload or talk about your concerns.”

And think about how we use our phones every day. Let’s say we sit down to discuss business or have a cup of coffee with a friend, and each of us has put our phones on the table between us. It’s one of those non-verbal cues that says neither of us thoroughly engaged.

In this aggressive and anxious culture, silence can lead you to fall behind. If you don’t listen, you might miss the opportunity to sell or advance your position.

Listening takes effort. Just like reading. When you don’t listen attentively, your listening skills begin to degrade.

Hearing is not listening. Hearing is passive, and listening is active. You know people who make a grand gesture of listening, but are they really? Understanding is the goal of listening, and it takes effort.

We now have the neuroscience that tells us when two people really “get” what each other is saying, their brainwaves are in sync. When someone listens to you, it means they’re taking an active interest in who you are and what you are doing. But when people don’t actively listen, it can give each of us feelings of inadequacy and emptiness, making us feel lonely and isolated.

I’ll leave you with a final quote from Murphy’s book, “Talking without listening is like touching without being touched.” As she says, the human voice moves us physically and emotionally, and it is this resonance that allows us to understand and to love. She goes so far as to say, evolution gave us eyelids, but we do not have a corresponding structure to close off our ears, suggesting that listening is essential to our survival.