Why We Listen Better To Strangers Than Family

Kate Murphy

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Awakin FeatureOnce you know people well enough to feel close, there’s an unconscious tendency to tune them out because you think you already know what they are going to say. It’s kind of like when you’ve traveled a certain route several times and no longer notice signposts and scenery.

But people are always changing. The sum of daily interactions and activities continually shapes us, so none of us are the same as we were last month, last week or even yesterday.

The closeness-communication bias is at work when romantic partners feel they don’t know each other anymore or when parents discover their children are up to things they never imagined.

It can occur even when two people spend all their time together and have many of the same experiences.

Social science researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that people often understood close relationships no better than strangers, and often worse.

The closeness-communication bias not only keeps us from listening to those we love, it can also keep us from allowing our loved ones to listen to us. It may explain why people in close relationships sometimes withhold information or keep secrets from one another.

So what can you do about it? The British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar said the primary way to maintain close relationships is through “everyday talk.” That means asking, “How are you?” and actually listening to the answer.

Too often spouses, and also parents with their children, reduce conversations to logistics such as what to have for dinner, whose turn it is to do the laundry, or when to leave for soccer practice. Friends might run down their latest accomplishments and activities. What often gets left out is what is really on people’s minds — their joys, struggles, hopes and fears. Sometimes people keep conversation light with friends and family because they assume they already know what’s going on, but also, they may be afraid of what they might learn.

But what is love if not a willingness to listen to and be a part of another person’s evolving story? A lack of listening is a primary contributor to feelings of loneliness.

Kate Murphy is the author of “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters.” Excerpted from this article.

Seed questions for reflection: How do you relate to the notion that love is 'a willingness to listen to and be a part of another person's evolving story'? Can you share an experience of a time you were able to overcome closeness-communication bias and listen deeply in a close relationship? What helps you stop yourself from already knowing what the other person is going to say and stay committed to discovery in your communication?

Add Your Reflection:

21 Previous Reflections:

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    On May 4, 2020 Salma wrote:
    I have experience this a number of time, when I listen to someone deeply from compassion...I get to see their world from their eyes. I had this huge anger towards my dad, my experience was that he is not a responsible person and he is a lair. Until age 25, I felt all men are the same and I wanted nothing to do with them emotionally. I had boyfriends, but never felt any emotional attachment with them. I knew I had to marry one day and I decide that is going to be a business deal. But, one day I meet my now husband and I felt the huge difference in this person. The way he conducted himself, his integrity, compassion and commitment was something I had never experienced before. Initially I felt he is just putting it on, his true colors will show later. 8yrs passed and he remain true to his word and finally I decided to marry him out of love. This was the time I went back to my father to hear him out and listen to his story, why was he so irresponsible towards his family, his work, his fina... [View Full Comment] I have experience this a number of time, when I listen to someone deeply from compassion...I get to see their world from their eyes.
    I had this huge anger towards my dad, my experience was that he is not a responsible person and he is a lair. Until age 25, I felt all men are the same and I wanted nothing to do with them emotionally. I had boyfriends, but never felt any emotional attachment with them. I knew I had to marry one day and I decide that is going to be a business deal.
    But, one day I meet my now husband and I felt the huge difference in this person. The way he conducted himself, his integrity, compassion and commitment was something I had never experienced before. Initially I felt he is just putting it on, his true colors will show later. 8yrs passed and he remain true to his word and finally I decided to marry him out of love.
    This was the time I went back to my father to hear him out and listen to his story, why was he so irresponsible towards his family, his work, his finances and his children future. Listening to him changed my view about him and understand his limitations and struggles, his fears and failures.
    I am glad I had that conversation with him. I was able to relate, understand and forgive and also ask for forgiveness.
    That conversation changed my life forever!
    [Hide Full Comment]

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    On Apr 27, 2020 Juan Carlos wrote:
    Sometimes I listen better than other times.

    When I listen better, it helps me not to think about "what I am going to answer when the other person finishes speaking"... If I am on the defensive, I will only think of myself and not listen to the other person's deep need. I can bring my attention to the body and not add fuel to the fire.

    Sometimes there is no need to answer either. Listen. Allow the other person to speak. Even, if someone tells us about a problem, listen in silence, without giving solutions ... Offer space without judgment. Just presence. Just love. The other person will feel better and safe, just sharing that problem and those feelings...

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    On Apr 27, 2020 Steve Nutt wrote:
    Once upon an earlier time in my life,I was a good listener. If that time was right after finishing gradate school, my listening might have been shaped by psychologist Carl Rogers as part of non-directive therapy. Forty-seven years later, some of Rogers is still with me. I agree with Kate that my listening is best with those who are new and less familiar.

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    On Apr 25, 2020 Mary Spike wrote:
    Something that I thought I might see in this essay, but didn't is this: I notice that when we are in conversation with those close to us, with whom our lives are intertwined, we fear that they will say something that makes us uncomfortable. Something that makes us feel criticized, or misunderstood, or unloved. For instance--I can say in a circle of women that "I would like to have more time to myself" and they may find it easy to acknowledge just what I have said. If I say to my husband, "I would like to have more time to myself" he may tend to feel and express that he thinks it means that I want less time with him--which is not what I had said. Then I go into explanation and reassurance and feel unheard. We do talk this kind of thing over--sometimes at another, more neutral time--but it can develop into a loop. (This is just an example--the same thing can happen with siblings, close friends, etc...)

    1 reply: Salma | Post Your Reply
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    On Apr 22, 2020 Levi wrote:
    I try to be open don't judge a book by its cover. Also everyone is different and that means everyone has something they can teach me.

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    On Apr 22, 2020 Mary Gentile wrote:
    Was in an airplane. The lady next to me was friendly. She said she had trouble sleeping. After 7 years, she started taking Gabapentin at night. Now my husband does! Great sleep! Good listening!

    Post Your Reply
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    On Apr 22, 2020 Tejal wrote:
    Sometimes asking how is your mind today helps give space for other to share what they may have not questioned in themselves or looked at and allow our own cultivation of love in listening

    Post Your Reply
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    On Apr 22, 2020 deepti mirani wrote:
    When we ask someone how are you feeling today, we get the response "Ok", "we are fine"
    even though they are not. Infact I give the same response too. How to break this chain ?

    Post Your Reply
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    On Apr 21, 2020 Raj wrote:
    Listen.. not just hearing..

    Post Your Reply
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    On Apr 21, 2020 Jane Detenber wrote:
    LIKE THE Quakers I believe, after listening it is helpful to pause and reflect before responding.

    Post Your Reply
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    On Apr 21, 2020 Jan Burns wrote:
    I have always felt that listening is a true act of love, To give the gitt of being truly present and actually hearing them--so intimate and nourishing!! When I find myself becoming impatient or zoning out, I try to remind myself how important the person is to me--that helps me snap back into being more the person I want to be for them--and for myself!

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    On Apr 21, 2020 Anilkumar Pandit wrote:
    Listen, Reflect and Contemplate on what is listened. This for sure brings in new element and evolution of relations even with those with decades of association. Having developed this aptitude it also facilitates to listen to existence which is our oldest association.

    Post Your Reply
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    On Apr 17, 2020 Rahul Brown wrote:
    I find that "How are you?" is a very poor question to ask someone who is close to you because its such a common question. Its rare for it to be a sincere question that merits a full and proper answer.

    Instead, here are five better questions.
    1. What moved you today?
    2. What were the biggest challenges of the day?
    3. What did you learn today?
    4. Is there anything you would want to undo or do over from today?
    5. What were the strongest emotions you felt today?

    2 replies: Matt, Vibha | Post Your Reply
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    On Apr 17, 2020 Jagdish P Dave wrote:
    This essay authored by Kate Murphy reminds me of a saying my father used to say in Sanskrit "Ati parichayatavagna" meaning too much closeness in relationship results in indifference. I often hear parents and children saying" I have heard it before and there is nothing new you're going to say." So they turn their deaf years and miss a great opportunity to listen to each other's evolving story. In any close relationship we should not be bound by the assumptions that the other person is going to play the same record and nothing new is going to emerge. The foundation of intimate relationship is LOVE. Love keeps my heart and mind open to listen to the other sharing his or her evolving life story. We have an extended family age ranging from 22 to 95. My daughter gets tired of taking care of many things in her everyday life. She gets tired and at times exhausted. She and I are early risers which give us time to talk during our half an hour coffee time. Last Friday... [View Full Comment] This essay authored by Kate Murphy reminds me of a saying my father used to say in Sanskrit "Ati parichayatavagna" meaning too much closeness in relationship results in indifference. I often hear parents and children saying" I have heard it before and there is nothing new you're going to say." So they turn their deaf years and miss a great opportunity to listen to each other's evolving story. In any close relationship we should not be bound by the assumptions that the other person is going to play the same record and nothing new is going to emerge. The foundation of intimate relationship is LOVE. Love keeps my heart and mind open to listen to the other sharing his or her evolving life story.

    We have an extended family age ranging from 22 to 95. My daughter gets tired of taking care of many things in her everyday life. She gets tired and at times exhausted. She and I are early risers which give us time to talk during our half an hour coffee time. Last Friday she talked about her getting exhausted by doing so many tasks. We came up with an idea of having one hour family meeting on every Saturday morning to listen to each other and create a schedule for the week to lessen the burden of my daughter. We did meet last Saturday. It was an open minded and open hearted communication meeting. She felt so much relieved and grateful for being listened to by all in the family. Her burden is lightened and she gets less tired. We are going to have such weekly meetings for listening to one another and enriching our relationships.

    Loving and caring for one another with an open mind and open heart and taking time to listen to each other deepens our understanding of each other and our relationships. Finding time from our busy life for listening deeply is crucial for our family wellbeing.
    Namaste!
    Jagdish P Dave'
    [Hide Full Comment]

    1 reply: Vee | Post Your Reply
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    On Apr 17, 2020 David Doane wrote:
    We are one, inseparably interrelated, so of course we are part of one another's story, if we want to be or not. The choice we have is how we are part of it. To be willing to listen, to truly pay attention and listen and be a positive part of another's story, is an expression of love. I often overcome closeness-communication bias and listen to what's being said -- I've learned to. What's helped me includes: having a wife who starting years ago says, "I have something I want you to hear, I want your undivided attention, is this a good time?" Also, I've learned that the present is all I've got, so I've gotten fairly good at being present and listening. Also, I believe in having a beginner's mind, I enjoy discovery and learning, I know listening is a good way to learn, so I at least sometimes listen and learn. Also, I don't know what the other has to say, I want to hear what the other has to say, so I've gotten fairly good at listening ... [View Full Comment] We are one, inseparably interrelated, so of course we are part of one another's story, if we want to be or not. The choice we have is how we are part of it. To be willing to listen, to truly pay attention and listen and be a positive part of another's story, is an expression of love. I often overcome closeness-communication bias and listen to what's being said -- I've learned to. What's helped me includes: having a wife who starting years ago says, "I have something I want you to hear, I want your undivided attention, is this a good time?" Also, I've learned that the present is all I've got, so I've gotten fairly good at being present and listening. Also, I believe in having a beginner's mind, I enjoy discovery and learning, I know listening is a good way to learn, so I at least sometimes listen and learn. Also, I don't know what the other has to say, I want to hear what the other has to say, so I've gotten fairly good at listening to him or her and not just listen to my own thinking, predictions, or prejudices.[Hide Full Comment]

    1 reply: Khuyen | Post Your Reply
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    On Apr 16, 2020 Prasad wrote:
    Just because I taught communication courses and teach others to listen deeply, I used to think that I am very good listener. There were a few occasionswhen we wife or son or daughter caught me doing something else because I thought I knew what they were saying. They never let me live it down and now I pay extra attention to what they say. Still when I am impatient, I try to complete their sentences and get into trouble whenever I do that. Autopilot listening is really easy. Deep and in the moment listening is always a choice that I have to make every single time -- but it is worth it!

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