Although subtitled “How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships”, a descriptive alternative for this book would have been “Psychoanalysing Myriad Ways Communication Can Go Wrong”. The bulk of the volume is given over to two things: examples of communication failures; and explanations, almost exclusively psychodynamic in nature, of what can go wrong or what could have gone differently. Oh, and jokes: lots of jokes, irony and sarcasm.
The Lost Art of Listening
By Michael P. Nichols, 2009. ISBN 9781593859862. Guilford Press. 314 pages.
If you don’t count yourself as especially looking for explanations of behaviour that are couched in terms of your childhood relationships with parent figures, or if you’re looking to enhance the artfulness of your listening with better awareness of the present moment or perhaps a clearer grasp of your own current thought processes or those of your interlocutor, this book probably is not for you. In fact, depending on your own theoretical inclinations and preferences, you might find that relatively little of this book is actually about listening at all, and for this reason it puzzles me that the publisher opted not to mention the book’s primary theoretical bent or otherwise offer any clues about its general approach right on the cover.
In my own case, I came to the book with some pre-conceived ideas about what it would mean to learn more about the art of listening, and as a result, I struggled with my own task of simply listening to the book. For me, Nichols’s intellectualising of the problems that can arise in communication, his offer of historical stories about needs and behaviours and child development, wound up distancing me from the face-to-face presence of listening. His advice on what to say, how to think, or how to act when listening likewise drifted me inexorably out of the in-the-moment experience of authentic listening. Explanations seeking to connect historical cause with current effect, with comparatively rare nods to empirical research that could at once counterbalance, complement and strengthen all that theorising, served largely to distract me from the task of just listening to the book on its own terms. And as for finding that lost art of listening, it seemed to me that much more of the book was about how it got lost in the first place, how bad it can be for everybody when it gets lost, and why it could be beneficial to find it again.
But from the standpoint of the psychodynamic tradition, getting closer to the art of listening means intellectualising current behaviour with theoretical constructs linking it to historical antecedents; deepening one’s understanding of what goes on when one person listens to another means uncovering the insights and the reasons and the histories which emerge from applying psychodynamic theories. From a psychodynamic perspective, then, being about listening means being about all of these things that I’ve described as a struggle or a distraction. So despite my own challenges as a reader, despite how far I found myself drifting from the things which I think of as core to the art of listening, it would be wrong of me to criticise this book for not being about those things. Likewise, it would be wrong of me to criticise this book for expounding familiar psychodynamic narratives that offer only occasional points of contact with the science of psychology.
Taking the book on its own terms — and with a bit of effort, I think readers from a wide range of backgrounds will be able to do exactly that — The Lost Art of Listening has a great deal to offer. One of these is its accessibility. There is no shortage of examples set in real life, with the book exemplifying the current trend to devote what feels like roughly 50% of the volume to examples and case studies. Adding to this breaking up of the ‘meatier’ bits of text, nearly every page includes pullquotes set off from the main text, and many also include brief boxed summaries and asides. Together with the brief exercises at the end of chapters and the persistently jokey tone, these qualities combine to suggest that a great deal of effort has gone into making this book un-scary.
More substantively, much of what Nichols has to say has a distinctly on-target feel to it. Not every potential connection needs empirical research behind it to ring true, and some explanations that seem at first a bit extravagant with the theoretical constructs turn out to be pretty parsimonious after all. Just as therapists from nearly every theoretical orientation will find truth in at least some of psychodynamic theory, I think readers from every walk of life — lay readers and mental health professionals alike — will find something to like here, something that really will turn on a lightbulb or two, something that can help us all get along a bit better and listen a bit more artfully.
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