It’s been a bit more than a year since I’ve been thinking about how to listen better. It’s hard to attribute any particular successful conversation to the things I’ve learned, but I haven’t been afraid that I’m dominating a conversation as often, and I’ve had some good successes learning interesting things from other people, and I have been able to help friends who needed to get something off their chest, and done a good job. That being said, I still think I have a ton of space to improve, and my successes are disproportionately with people who seem to like talking anyway.
Here are some more recent additions to my explicit knowledge about how to be a good listener.
Listening takes energy
I think of listenining as being pretty passive, but if the person I’m talking to isn’t very talkative, it actuall takes me more attention to keep the conversation in their court than to talk about myself or just drop the conversation. When I’m listening to other people, I need to work to assimilate new information, and persistance and creativity to keep asking them questions with non-trivial answers. When I’m talking about myself– well, I’m usually saying things I’ve said before, or at least understand well.
Ask about what I’m most interested in
This seems obvious, but it took me a while to figure it out. I started out trying to find questions that would bring out things that the person I was talking to knew about and I didn’t, or the things they found most interesting, but I often didn’t know what to ask, or found that the conversations petered.
First of all, I come up with different topics by thinking about what I’m interested in. I’m often interested in pretty mundane parts of people’s lives– what are their communities like? Why did they choose to live where they do? How do they make friends? These aren’t the most “interesting” things that people think about, at least in an intellectual sense, but they’re parts of people’s lives I find interesting to learn about, and as a bonus, basically everyone can talk about the answers to these questions.
I also find it easier to come up with follow-up questions. If I’m genuinely interested in what we’re talking about, I don’t need to do any complicated calculation to decide what to ask next, I just ask the next thing that pops into my head.
I obviously haven’t given up talking about myself or things that I’m interested in entirely, but I have noticed that even my well-balanced conversations have changed structure. I’m more likely to spend a while asking someone else about an experience they’ve had or something they know about, and then switch modes and let them ask me questions. In my mind, this has become the “interesting people poking at each-other” mode of conversation, and they’re some of the most enjoyable conversations I have.