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April 18, 2018

It’s Time to Listen

By Jillian Schwartz

I can still see the poster hanging in my third-grade classroom: “Listen and silent have the same letters for a reason.” At the time, I thought it was a teacher-way of saying “lights off, voices off”. Fast forward to today, and I now know the poster meant a whole lot more.

Almost all of us talk to people every single day, but dare I say that very few are good listeners? It turns out that listening takes more than just being silent.

So, what does it take to be a good listener and why is it important? Here are 4 things I’ve learned and try to keep in mind:

1. Listen to get out of the small talk rut
“How’s business? How ‘bout this weather we’re having? How ’bout them Sox/Cubs?” Those are good openings, but take it bit further and ask a follow-up question. “What are you looking forward to this month?” “What season is your favorite?” or “How long have you been a fan?” People generally like to talk about themselves. Learn something, remember it, and mention it the next time you see that person. They’ll appreciate you paying attention.

2. Listen and don’t make it about you.
I was talking with one of my friends recently about a problem. By the end of the conversation, I realized our roles had flipped and we had started discussing her similar problem and I became the one listening and giving advice.

When someone is talking, remember: It. Is. Not. About. You. Yes, it’s good to offer relatable points or a similar story if it can help. But listening means you must take a genuine interest in the other person rather than finding ways to make you seem interesting to them. Leave your ego at the door.

3. Listening means you don’t talk. Aim to speak for no more than 90 seconds at a time (unless your point is particularly riveting)
I love my grandma. We all love her. But we know when we get her on the phone, it is going to be a minimum 8-minute straight monologue. I remember a time my dad was talking to her on the phone, fell asleep, woke up some time later and she was still talking, completely oblivious. As much as we enjoy hearing about the “good, fresh, bread” she got on sale (plus she had a coupon, and it was 5% off day because her friend Linda told her about the senior discount last Saturday when she was over at her house to watch the Wild game), it’s nearly impossible to have a true conversation with her. For grandmas, it works. For most of the rest of us, it does not. Be conscious of how the people you are talking to are responding. Conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue.

4. Listen to discover what’s expected of you during the conversation
When I call my dad with a problem, I preface by saying “I just want to get this out” or “I want your help, you can give advice when I’m done”. It’s important to understand your role in listening–what does that person expect from you when they’re done talking? If you’re not in a place for the person to spell it out as clearly as I do for my dad, pay attention to their cues and figure out if they just want a pair of ears or need some advice. If they break in their conversation, say “mhm” and give it a few seconds. If they start back up, they probably just want to let it all out.

I thought grownups had it all figured out, yet it can still be painful for me to go to events where I know I will be faced with hours of small talk and conversations that don’t do anything to grow a relationship. I love connecting, I hate small talk. But I’ve learned that, in the beginning, some of that small talk is necessary. It doesn’t take much more than a good listener, however, to take that small talk and turn it into slightly larger talk.