We’ve all got great points to make, especially when bouncing ideas from one another. And sometimes we just want to squeeze our points in lest we forget what we want to say, or the conversation veers to another topic. All are compelling reasons to want to interrupt and make your point, but doing so shows that you’re less interested in the other person’s thoughts than your own.
I’m not talking words, either. Don’t make any gestures or facial expressions that show you’ve already tuned out and are ready to respond. Simply listen. It’s hard—especially when people go on and on—but if it’s their turn to talk, let them. You might want to interject at a good opportunity, or if it truly is a one-sided conversation (and it’s not supposed to be), then excuse yourself. But don’t jump in when the other person hasn’t finished yet.
Wait a few seconds before responding
Author Dan Pink suggests this exercise in his latest book To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others:
In your next 5 conversations, take listening to an extreme. Every time another person says something, wait 5 seconds before responding. Seriously. Every time. It will seem odd at first. And your conversation partner might wonder if you were recently bonked on the head. But pausing a few additional seconds to respond can hone your listening skills in much the same way that savoring a piece of chocolate, instead of wolfing it down, can improve your palate.
I don’t know if I would go as far as five seconds, but try to at least pause for a beat or two after the person is finished speaking before responding. Doing so helps to ensure that they truly are finished and that you’ve listened to and focused on everything they have to say. You’re less inclined to think of the next thing to say and less likely to interrupt.
Don’t be a devil’s advocate
Your friend wants to vent about work to shake the frustration off her shoulders—not necessarily to hear what might be going through her boss’ head. Or to imagine what could have led her boss to act that way. Or worse, what your friend did that could have made that her boss act that way. Point being: just let your friend vent. She doesn’t need to hear opinions, much less you sticking up for her boss.
Another downside of being a devil’s advocate is that your loved ones could start questioning your support and loyalty. If your friend feels like you’re on everyone else’s side but hers, she might start to resent your seemingly lack of support.
Don’t try to solve other people’s problems
Here was one of my big light bulb moments: I assumed people wanted my advice. That it was useful and heeded. Turns out offering advice is almost always pointless. How many times have you told a friend to leave a terrible boyfriend yet only to see her stay in the relationship?
And vice versa: many of us have tuned out our friends’ advice and only took action when we decided to. Advice—however well-meaning and probably right—usually doesn’t work until we’re ready to make that decision for ourselves.
Instead of offering advice, offer support. Your friend’s life may be unstable like a roaring storm in the sea, so be her anchor; the person she can rely on as her constant.
Or simply mirror what she has just said and offer descriptive reflections. If your friend says, “I’m really pissed off at this dead-end job, my coworkers annoy me and I hate the work,” you can respond with, “It seems like you’re upset with work. What do you think you can do about it?” instead of the very tempting advice of, “If I were you, I would just quit and look for a new job.”
Stay on the subject and don’t get distracted
I’ve had conversations with people where I’m talking and—mid-sentence—they’ll point out, “Oh, look at that cute baby!” Every time this happens, I sour at the thought of 1) having been interrupted, and 2) not having been listened to. This seems like a given, but it still amazes me how often this occurs (and yes, I’ve been guilty!).
Pass no judgment
Even if a friend is complaining about a loser partner, keep your opinions to yourself. Believe it or not, it may actually hurt her to hear others call her partner a jerk. Imagine listening to a friend complain about her child’s latest antics and saying, “What a spoiled kid!”
I’m still trying to perfect the art of listening. My biggest demon right now is truly listening and not jumping in with my opinions, answers or rebuttals. The world won’t end if it doesn’t hear the extremely-awesome-and-”I-absolutely-have-to-say-them” thoughts brewing in my head.
Do you find yourself guilty of being a bad listener from time to time? What are some other tips on how to be a good listener?