Author and journalist Murphy teaches parents about the power of listening

Jillian Lee, Staff Writer

“Listening is a superpower,” author and journalist Kate Murphy said on Tuesday night at this year’s first virtual Parent Institute (PI) event. “We’re all Clark Kents waiting to be Superman.” 

Murphy is a Texas-based journalist and has written for publications such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Her book about the importance of being attentive, You’re Not Listening, was the main reason why the PI invited her to talk at the school, director of the PI Wendy Reiter said.

Reiter learned about Murphy’s work from the Macmillan Speakers Bureau, a publishing house that Reiter often collaborates with for PI events, she said. The event was part of the PI BookTalk series.

Murphy, Reiter, and Wilson met a week in advance to prepare for the event, English Department Chair Vernon Wilson said. Together, they decided what the breakdown of the night would look like and what the main focus of the night would be: to provide parents with pragmatic information that is relevant to their role as a parent, Reiter said. 

The event consisted of a conversation between Murphy and Wilson, followed by a Q&A where parents were invited to submit questions during the event itself. “The quality of the conversation that they had throughout the evening was really remarkable,” Reiter said. 

Wilson, the facilitator, catered the conversation towards parents by asking questions about the overarching ideas in Murphy’s book, rather than the neuroscientific aspects of her research. 

The conversation was meant to help parents become better listeners, a difficult skill that Murphy’s book explores. Parent-child relationships can greatly benefit from the encouragement of actively listening to make one feel heard, Reiter said. 

Within families, closeness communication bias, the tendency to make presumptions about what someone will say based on the intimacy of your relationship, tends to occur frequently, Murphy said. People are constantly evolving, which means that the unpredictability of others and their responses should be a given. Nancy Korff P’23, ‘25 ‘27 learned that when talking to family members, it is important to actively listen and avoid making assumptions, she said. 

Not only can listening for understanding make kids feel heard at home, but the practice can also carry over into classroom spaces, Wilson said. “Listening is key for the functioning of a classroom,” he said. “Discussion rather than debate.” 

Everyone can learn how to become a better listener, Murphy said during the event. The first step is to ask open-ended questions that provoke interpretation rather than generic compensatory questions, she said. That may look like asking the following after returning home from school: “What was something new that you learned in school today?” Rather than asking the exhausted question, “How was your day?” By doing so, the parents are more interested in the answer, which will foster more fruitful conversations, and make the parent want to listen more, Murphy said. She used the phrase “virtuous cycle” to describe this effect. 

One of the greatest inhibitors of this “virtuous cycle” is technology, Murphy said. Technology has become a substantial part of most people’s lives, which has caused people to spend less time talking to one another face-to-face without distraction, she said. 

We have gotten so used to having these constant distractions and developed the skill of multitasking, which can be beneficial at times, but is not conducive to active listening, Gita Shaari P’22, ‘20, ‘17, ‘16 said. “I think just sitting back with someone, whether it be your children or a colleague, and just letting the person know that they’re heard and you’re paying 100% attention to them is valuable and has sort of ripple like positive effects.”

Solely communicating via technology limits understanding. Murphy encouraged families to spend time together in person – without technology – to work on improving listening skills. In Murphy’s book, she explains how technology has altered the chemical processes of the human brain in a way that weakens our abilities to actively listen. Murphy’s advice on how to find balance between engagement with technology and pay attention to human interaction is crucial to regaining this skill back, Wilson said. 

In addition to technology, regular everyday duties can make it difficult to slow down and be attentive towards body language when listening to others. “There are many times, unfortunately, where I’m talking to my kids and doing five different things at the same time,” Korff said. Murphy’s talk demonstrated the great benefits to watching body language as a means to listen for understanding, which is something that Korff intends on implementing in her family, she said.  

The ability to perceive non-verbal cues is stunted by technology, everyday tasks, and even physical barriers like masks, which makes processing what is being heard more difficult, Murphy said. Listening is tied to non-verbal cues, which deliver 55% of the emotional content of a message. Since students still wear masks at school, the strive to apply listening for understanding within the classroom becomes exponentially crucial, Wilson said. 

Despite the pandemic forcing individuals to have less face-to-face contact to improve listening skills, Murphy made it clear that there are silver linings, Wilson said. Counterintuitively, the pandemic has actually helped improve the type of listening that Murphy encourages within isolation pods, she said. With more free time, people are more attentive towards each other and have found that listening leads to stronger relationships, Murphy said.

Subsequent PI events this year will have a general theme of communication which is relevant to life both on and off campus, Reiter said. The main goal of the PIis “to reinforce the essential skills and knowledge that contribute to a sound, healthy parenting experience,” Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly wrote in an email. Tuesday’s event was a good way to start off the year since listening is an integral component of communication, she said.