Conversations with her were far from a two-way dialogue. Rather, they were a one-sided assault. Even making a simple comment in response to something she said was well nigh impossible. She could hold an entire room hostage in stunned silence with her verbal barrage. To be on the receiving end was difficult, to say the least.
Most of us are not in danger of such extreme loquacity, nor are we usually such poor conversationalists. But chances are we could improve our ability to converse well with others, especially when it comes to listening rather than speaking.
How to Have a Conversation
In the developed western world, we are rich with material goods but suffer from a serious poverty of attention. Distracted and rushed, we keep conversations and genuine human connection to a bare minimum. We excuse ourselves by saying we are too busy, but in reality, we are often fearful of making ourselves vulnerable to others. Likewise, we fear listening to others because it might cost us precious emotional energy. It’s simply easier and safer to be busy.
Yet, this human connection is essential to a happy life. We are beings made for communion, and all around us are people hungry to be heard and acknowledged, understood and affirmed.
Listening is also a critical skill in the workplace and any environment where personal interaction is required. It will further your growth as a man.
To this end, I want to recommend a simple acronym that can help you improve your conversations: E.A.R.
E is for Empathize – One of the most effective ways to listen well is to empathize with what the other person is saying. Try to step into their shoes and understand what they are communicating. If it’s a funny story, laugh with them. If it’s a story that is embarrassing, feel their embarrassment. Strive to engage deeply with what they are saying, to really hear them more than superficially.
The best listeners and conversationalists I know, both men and women, have a profound ability to feel your excitement, joy, or sorrow. And knowing that they understand you and that they are really listening is profoundly affirming.
A is for Ask – The next skill required of a good conversationalist is asking questions. Once the other individual has shared something about themselves, draw them out with further inquiries. I once had a fascinating conversation with a man at the airport who owned an oil refinery in Wyoming.
“How did you end up owning a refinery?” “What’s it like in Wyoming?” “You’ve been all over the world! What was your favorite place?”
Questions like that drew out surprising and interesting answers, leading to more questions and dialogue. I learned all sorts of interesting things from this man, and while our encounter was relatively brief, I went away having made a connection with someone who had a unique story to tell. You’ll find is that, to varying degrees, everyone is interesting and everyone has something to say, if only given the opportunity.
R is for Respond – Once you have really heard the other person and drawn them out with further questions, engage them with your own anecdotes and stories. Often, this is the first thing we do, and this isn’t necessarily wrong. It is a human tendency to talk about ourselves, to think our stories and perspectives are unique and important. Yet, listening and asking rather than speaking immediately is a small gift of courtesy that can make a profound difference to another person. Wait to share your stories and ideas, and you will be a better conversationalist for it.
It is Good that You Exist
Every day we encounter other human beings. Sometimes these relationships last a moment and sometimes they last a lifetime. In every relationship—whether it be with a co-worker, a person on the subway, or your spouse—listening is one of the most valuable skills to possess. Truly stopping your mad rush of activity to hear another person, to affirm their existence, is a powerful act of kindness that will not go unappreciated.
As Pope Benedict XVI put it, “If an individual is to accept himself, someone must say to him: ‘It is good that you exist’ – must say it, not with words, but with that act of the entire being that we call love.”
Today, and every day, say to those you encounter, ‘It is good that you exist’ by offering them the gift of your listening presence.