Sometimes people will lower their guards without even intending to if they find a kind ear that’s willing to listen intently and let them voice their inner thoughts. Listening is a skill that should be taught from childhood, but it’s not, so we are left with all sorts of ineffective listening habits. We are all also naturally self-absorbed, which highlights the importance of listening as a skill to make others feel good about an interaction. While there are various methods to listen better, having a listening mindset is by far the most important part: it’s not about you, focus on the other person, and if they said something, there’s a reason—explore that.
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Two Ears, One Mouth
Raise your hand if this has ever happened to you: you are speaking with someone, and immediately after you finished speaking, they ignored absolutely everything you said, didn’t even acknowledge it, and continued on a completely unrelated thought or tangent? It’s as if they didn’t hear a word of what you said, and they probably didn’t.
Can you imagine this happening during a theater performance?
Actor #1: “I want to go to the butcher shop now, so let’s go!”
Actor #2: “This table is fascinating. Do you think it was made in Germany?”
Actor #1: “Uh… so back to that butcher shop…”
Actor #1 would be left confused and scrambling. Unfortunately, if we’re honest with ourselves, this type of interaction is common and happens often. For all of our good intentions, most people are terrible listeners, us included, and it impacts the quality of our relationships. People want to say what they want to say, and they are more interested in their own lives than anyone else’s. To most, on an unconscious level, sharing is caring, not listening.
This is normal human nature, but that doesn’t mean it’s best for us. Good habits such as self-discipline, willpower, and focusing on others explicitly goes against our built-in instincts, so it can take some undoing. Conversation is a two-way street, and you have to give the other person space to speak in order to receive it for yourself. Unfortunately, many people (hopefully not you) see conversation as a dumping ground. This will happen in one of two ways.
People will either come in with a fixed agenda and set of talking points, or they will be so wrapped up in their own lives that they just want to share with you and not hear about yours. In either case, they open their mouths, unload information, and don’t stop until they get tired of their own voices.
How does this make the listener feel? People aren’t dumb. People can detect when you are engaged and interested in what they have to say.
They will get the distinct feeling that the other person is just waiting for their turn to speak and is not interested in anything they have to say. It’s like they know they are doing their best to try to listen to you, but they feel that their lives are so much more captivating that they can’t resist going back to that topic.
The listeners are not getting much out of the exchange, and at some point, only listening to someone and having your prompts ignored is burdensome and flat-out annoying. In a theater performance, the two parties won’t be working together, and the scene will be disjointed as one person will have to keep catering to the other person’s whims.
Silence is an effective communication tool. Use it more frequently than you think you should. If anyone you engage with answers your questions happily but doesn’t pause to ask you how you’re doing, then they need to shut up more. If that’s you, you’re the one who needs to shut up.
It can be difficult because sometimes we build up a lot of steam during conversations. We feel like we’re on a roll with what we’re talking about, and we could keep going for hours. That’s a selfish pursuit, and if someone wants to hog the spotlight for a while, you must absolutely surrender it and be willing to derail yourself and jump completely into someone else’s ideas and topics.
Therefore, in conversation, one of the first keys is that you don’t just wait for your turn to speak. To some, this sounds like “let people speak and don’t interrupt them,” but it goes deeper than that.
This actually means to empty your mind and stop composing your response or the next topic while someone is speaking. When you are listening, you aren’t only waiting for your turn to speak and preparing for that. You are listening with a blank slate and then tailoring your response directly to what was just said. Wherever the other person wants to derail the conversation, you must be willing to go with them. That’s great listening and a showing of respect.
If you are letting the other person speak simply because you feel like you shouldn’t be talking for so long at one stretch, you are just waiting for your turn to speak. You aren’t participating in the conversation; you are giving a monologue in the hopes that the other person contributes and listens to it. Or worse yet, the other person listens in a similar fashion to you and you are in a case of dueling monologues versus a dialogue.
Even more seriously, you are not respecting your conversation partner. Your behavior tells them you do not value them enough to listen while you are waiting for your turn to unload what you have to say. Much of this is subconscious, so it would be wrong to say that we are malicious in our daily conversations. We sometimes get too eager to talk about ourselves because our lives are most interesting to us, so why wouldn’t they be to others?
We’re like puppies discovering snow for the first time and are unable to contain our excitement.
We already had an example of poor listening earlier—that damned butcher shop. However, it was egregious, and most examples of poor listening are subtler and you may not even realize they are a problem. They might merely be classified as “ineffective.”
Bob: I heard that butcher shop is pretty good.
Johnson: Oh, cool. Where is it?
Bob: About a ten-minute walk.
Johnson: Oh, I see. Did I tell you about my new niece?
Bob: No, you didn’t. Congratulations.
Johnson: She’s really cute. Here are some pictures.
The reason this is ineffective listening is because Johnson merely pays lip service to Bob’s interests before being unable to contain himself from talking about his niece. He doesn’t see Bob’s thought to completion and cuts him off in the middle to shift to his own topic. This is the type of poor listening that we encounter more on a daily basis. It’s subtle, but sometimes it’s just as bad.
Here is that conversation but with better listening:
Bob: I heard that butcher shop is pretty good.
Johnson: Oh, cool. Where is it?
Bob: About a ten-minute walk.
Johnson: Oh, I see. Did you want to check it out?
Bob: I do. Do you want to come with me?
Johnson: Sure. Along the way, I can show you pictures of my new niece.
Both parties are able to wedge their thoughts in. Conversation that improves relationships and makes people feel positive about each other involves an interplay between silence and speaking, and both parties have an equal opportunity to take the spotlight.
Collaboration is the name of the game, and waiting for your turn to speak doesn’t contribute to a shared goal—only yours.
Interrupting, of course, is also a no-no in the quest for better listening. Interrupting sends the message of “I know you were talking, but what I have to say is more interesting for both of us” or “What I’m saying is more important than what you say.” Again, it’s not conscious, but that’s what happens when we put our thoughts and agendas over those of other people.
You might not think it’s a big deal, but if you keep interrupting, that is precisely the message you send. Your conversation partner doesn’t know what’s going on inside your head, so who can blame them for feeling alienated if your actions don’t represent your intentions?
Here are a few quick guidelines for interruptions. First, don’t interrupt others unless you agree with them so emphatically that you can finish their sentence with them. Second, if you do interrupt them for any reason, ask them immediately after you finish speaking what they were saying and bring it back to them. Acknowledge your error and quickly put the spotlight back onto them.
Third, try to abide by the two-second rule to police yourself. After someone finishes speaking, pause for a full two seconds while contemplating what they’ve said and externally demonstrate that you are analyzing their words. Then, and only then, may you reply. This will get you into the habit of thinking before speaking and addressing people first.
You can also get into the habit of using phrases that encourage others to keep speaking. It’s not always enough to just shut up and nod your head. Staring blankly at someone will make people feel like they have to repeat themselves and that their message didn’t get through. It has the same exact effect as not listening to them.
You have to demonstrate that you are mentally following every step of the conversation, even if you aren’t. Use your facial expressions, eyebrows, gestures, and laughs to signal a reaction to each of their statements. Nod when they emphasize a point. Here are some encouraging phrases to show interest and investment:
• I see.
• That’s interesting.
• Tell me more.
• And then?
• What happened next?
• What about that?
If you look at conversations as simply an exercise to be heard and shine a spotlight on your ego, you are doing a great disservice to everyone you engage with. Not everyone is as interested in your life as you are. Even if you think you are listening and shutting up sufficiently, there’s a chance that you still cling to your train of thought subconsciously and are waiting for the opportunity to assert it.
To improve your conversations and connect better, you need to shut up more. As the old saying goes, you can’t learn when you’re speaking.
Though it may not seem that way at first, listening is actually one of the most self-interested things you can do, because you are the person who benefits and learns. It’s a complete win-win situation.
To see the simple power of shutting up more, make your next conversation with a friend all about them. Try to find out about every minute detail of their day. This means you shutting up, listening to them, reacting accordingly, and asking questions that go deeper. Say as little as you can while reacting properly and moving the conversation along in whatever direction they want. Make it as unbalanced an exchange as possible.
Don’t interrupt them, and try to coax as many stories from them as you can. Note how willing they are to speak about themselves in detail.
Is this easy or difficult for you? Did it feel unnatural to ask people deeply about their day and focus on them? If it did, then you just might need to practice shutting up more!
By the way, much of what we’ve discussed regarding listening thus far is about how to resist your selfish tendencies to seize the spotlight and share to your heart’s content. But if you have that tendency, so does the person across from you. Step aside and give them the chance to be selfish in an effort to better your communication.
Think about how you feel after you leave a conversation where you don’t share much. You probably feel neglected, suppressed, and like it was a negative experience because you weren’t able to add your thoughts. Now imagine a scenario where you were given all the air space you could use and had a captive audience. You’d come away feeling good because you were able to articulate the subtleties of your thoughts. You know how good it feels to express and explain yourself, so don’t rob others of that same experience.
Make people feel like you care and they matter. Giving people the spotlight is an entirely different thing from making sure people know they have the spotlight.
“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”—Dale Carnegie