Sunday, 4 November 2012

Be a good listener

There are times in our lives when we come into contact with people whose company we don't enjoy.  If we are really unfortunate, these are people we see on a regular basis and are unable to avoid.

If you ever meet me in person, you may discover that small talk is not my forte.  An English teacher, during my school days, summed up this part of my character perfectly - "He doesn't say much but, when he does, you know it's something worth listening to."  I'm a lot more outgoing than I was back then, but it is still true that I find it hard to talk just for the sake of keeping a conversation going.  That quote of Mark Twain's, where he says it is better to let them think you are a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt, rings true with me.

So, I've spent a large part of my life watching how other people communicate and noticing that some are much worse than I am at the art of conversation.  To come back to my original point about people whose company we don't enjoy, some people are naturally aggressive in conversation.  If you have ever been in conversation with someone who leans towards you when talking, leans back when you talk, fixes you with a stare, doesn't let you finish sentences, leaves no gap for you to contribute to the conversation and maybe dismisses anything you say, then you have come up against an aggressive communicator.

It worries me that the aforementioned aggressive style of conversation seems to be the method employed by a growing number of people.  Everyone is so intent on being heard that they forget the other, more important part of a conversation: listening.  Unfortunately, the aggressive style has the drawback of having the opposite effect of that which was intended.  Most people, confronted with a monologue, will reach a point where they are no longer really listening.  Yes, they nod politely, and maybe they pick up a word or sentence here and there, but you can't fail to see that they are fidgeting or their eyes have that far away look.

I come across the aggressive conversational style on a daily basis.  Actually, I was unfortunate enough to have spent my childhood being ignored, talked over and made to feel like nothing I had to say would make anyone want to listen.  I'm not going to name the culprits, but I will say that it leaves a lasting impression.  Consequently, I am rubbish at small talk at the time of writing (I may work on it), but an excellent listener.

If you don't know how to be a good listener, I will use an example.  When out for the evening, I have often seen men on dates with women.  I can usually tell if it is a first date, and I can also tell if it will be the last.  If I hear a man talking about his job, the things he likes and doesn't like, with his date as a passive listener, I'm pretty sure there will not be another date.  On the other hand, if he asks his date about herself, genuinely takes an interest in her, and the conversation changes focus between them, there may just be another date.  It is the same with any conversation.  If you are not interested in the other person, how can you expect them to be interested in you?  If, however, you ask them about themselves, you will get to know that person a bit better, and they are more likely to want to know about you.

The best conversations are those when we listen to the other person.  We may learn things about that person, their interests or knowledge they possess, that we would not hear otherwise.  If we are so impatient to get our own point across that we dominate the conversation, we are less likely to hear those things and that person may even try to avoid us in the future.

Listen.  You might learn something.

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