How to be Successful: Listen

Photo by kyle smith on Unsplash

I was on a friend’s video chat yesterday with people I generally enjoy speaking with, but are also a little bit much.  They tend to talk over each other and everyone is accustomed to being the star of the show.  This doesn’t bother me , as I am quiet by nature.  But it could be better.  They could spend more time listening.

It reminds me of a friend of mine in college who was impressively successful in his dating life.  One of his girlfriends said, “Andy is amazing because, when you’re talking, it’s like there’s nothing else in the world more important than you.”  You may remember the line in Fight Club that people who are dying really listen instead of just waiting for their chance to speak.  People want to be listened to.  Listening is a skill.  You can cultivate it.  Why would you want to be better at listening?  I think there are myriad reasons being a good listener would improve your life.  

First, you can learn some things.  You know how drugs periodically become unavailable or expensive?  I learned why talking to a friend of an acquaintance one afternoon.  They explained the supply chain mechanics which led to such scarcity.  It was fascinating and something I have retained ever since.

Second, people LOVE being listened to.  As evidenced by my little anecdote and Fight Club, people often don’t have the opportunity to have others really LISTEN.  I think people appreciate someone who is focused on what they are saying.  And, really, why are you talking to them if you don’t want to hear what they have to say?  This is not a gambit, this is you genuinely listening and hearing what they are telling you.  I think this will endear you to other people, and they will want you to be around them more.

Finally, communication is the key to so many human endeavors.  I see medical errors happen all the time because people aren’t listening.  I see students fail to understand something because they were browsing Facebook instead of listening.  If you don’t listen, you won’t understand.  Listening will make sure you participate fully in the human experience.

So, listening is good and valuable and I think you should be a good listener.  What are elements of being a good listener, and how do you develop them?

First, don’t interrupt.  This can be VERY HARD for some people.  Maybe they are thinking that the thing they have to say is utterly critical to the conversation.  Maybe they feel they won’t have an opportunity to contribute if they don’t interrupt.  I have told several students that they tend to interrupt, and I’m not sure anyone has ever said that to them before.  So I think it’s hard to recognize in one’s self.  Maybe ask some friends or family members.  If you’re interrupting, you’re not listening.

Second, be patient.  You will have your chance to contribute.  Maybe.  If the people you are with are VERY chatty, you may not be able to contribute.  Oh well, they clearly aren’t interested in what you have to say.  Good conversationalism is actually a skill all on its own.  It involves listening as well as asking interesting questions.  I find few people are good at conversation.  When I find them, I like to hang on to them.  If the people you’re around aren’t asking you questions or engaging you, maybe they’re not really your friends.  Your friends will appreciate your patient, attentive listening.

Third, accept that you may not get to get your word in.  Maybe you had the perfect response to something, but that time has passed.  Oh well, that’s fine, be patient and maybe you will have an opportunity to contribute in the future.  Maybe the opportunity is long gone and you’ll never get that great contribution or question in.  In the friend’s video chat I mentioned earlier, I wanted to ask about how he manages kid wrangling.  But the others on the call kept on talking over each other, so I didn’t have a chance.  Oh well, maybe if I have the chance to chat with him again it will come up.  It’s not the end of the world if you don’t get to contribute.  You are fulfilling an important role in the ecology of human interaction by being present and listening.

Fourth, ask reflective questions.  If someone says something and you immediately take off on the thing you wanted to say, OK fine.  That’s obviously the right choice sometimes.  But, if someone asks you a question, answer it and then ask THEM that same question.  It’s obviously on their mind.  This starts to broach into conversational dynamics, but listening and responding appropriately go hand-in-hand.  Once you listen to what they say, ask questions to follow up.  Hot take: people LOVE talking about themselves.

Finally, orient yourself to the person.  When someone is talking, they may not make eye contact.  But listeners establish eye contact.  You turn towards them.  You may open your body language (e.g. no crossed arms).  Smile.  Think about ways that you can demonstrate that you are interested and engaged with the person.  A large part of communication is nonverbal, so think about what your nonverbal behaviors are demonstrating.

I think listening is a valuable life skill, and I always appreciate people who spend more time listening than talking.  If you are an extrovert, this may be more challenging than for an introvert.  Regardless, consider how you can become more of a listener to improve your personal and professional interactions.

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