I admire people who are great listeners. I always try to be one. That’s why I oftentimes intentionally take notice of some details during a conversation. This article is about my observation and self-reflection recently.
Some people talk, to some degree, only about themselves.
There’re a few patterns we can observe when those people engage in a conversation. Some may constantly interrupt others and redirect the limelight onto themselves. Some may avoid using any supporting response until people naturally stop talking and they can then take the stage again.
These behaviors are obvious and we can easily avoid them if we want. However, one day I found another pattern that is less obvious but should be avoided as well. The pattern is that some people listen only because they are finding a moment to jump in with their opinions or stories.
Of course, it is fine to express our opinions and we all should wait until other people finish their stories. Nonetheless, sometimes we can be too excited about our next thought. We focus too much on our related stories and the desire to tell these stories makes us less attentive in the conversation. We may still come up with some supporting responses such as “Oh really”, “That’s cool”, but we now are not good listeners. People can tell when we aren’t truly listening. Even worse, we are now not enjoying the conversation and living in the present.
Surprisingly and unsurprisingly, I found myself sometimes behaving just like that. I acted like I’m listening with my full attention, but I was actually distracted by the desire to tell a related experience I had. I could be aware that I was not truly listening, which was awful given that I aim to be a better listener.
How to be better in that kind of situation?
One day, just as I was pondering the question, a possible answer showed up. When I was listening to an audiobook called Tribe of Mentors, one of the mentors in the book named Jon Call mentioned the exact situation I had confronted. He described the situation as “somebody may tell a story about an experience they had, while I have a related story that sounds even bigger or more dramatic than theirs”. In the response to the situation, he said: “Rather than wait for a moment to jump in with mine, I’ll just let the desire go and ask them more questions about their experience”. He discovered that the loss of the opportunity to possibly impress someone is far outweighed by what he learns when he asks more questions.
I found his way to approach this situation fascinating and tried to adopt his method immediately. Telling my brain “no” to let go of the desire to tell a related story is hard, but it did make me more engaged. Furthermore, I even gained more from their responses to the follow-up questions. It’s an opportunity to learn more, instead of self-signaling and repeat what I already know.
Some may argue that it is unrealistic to let go of every opportunity to tell our own stories. However, my takeaway these days is that though I drop my desire in the first place, I can pick up my story anytime after others finish theirs completely. Additionally, if my story is worth telling, it will still be worth telling later. What’s better, when we let others finish their stories, we make them feel heard. Thus, they are now more likely to hand over the mic to us by asking for our stories, which is a more spontaneous and delightful way to keep the conversation flowing.
I’m still learning how to let go of the desire to tell a bigger story whenever listening. I’ve gotten better at it (at least I think so). My next goal to work on is to be the one who can ask others to continue their stories after they get interrupted rudely by someone else.