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Want to Be a Great Conversationalist? Stop Talking!

Here’s a fact: conversations are an inevitable part of your everyday experience.  Unless you live and work as a hermit in a cave in the middle of nowhere, I’m willing to bet that you engage in at least one conversation a day.  It could be a cursory conversation about the weather, or an in-depth heated discussion about the state of world politics, or anything in between. No matter what the topic, trust me when I say that a conversation is going to happen at some point for you each and every day. Which means it behooves you to learn the art of conversation. 

Great conversationalists are usually identified by their capacity to use language.  The way they talk, the way they string sentences together, the breadth of their vocabulary – these seem to be hallmarks of those who converse well.  In addition to their masterful use of language, there’s also the capacity to engage, to draw you in, to make you want to listen, even if and when you disagree.    

The thing is, while mastery of both language and the skill of engagement are invaluable when it comes to conversation, there is actually another skill that those who are gifted conversationalists employ.  It’s a skill that’s easy to overlook; and it’s one skill that, when it’s lacking, you notice.  Its lack of presence will stall any meaningful conversation, every time. This is the skill of listening. 

The saying “silence is golden” is particularly true in the land of conversations.  That space of silence is where some really great stuff happens.  No matter who you are or what your role in the conversation, silence is a quality that enhances and benefits the whole experience.  The individual within a conversation who can really listen, is usually the one who ends up being able to talk skillfully as well.  It’s as though her ability to listen enhances her ability to talk.  And I would assert that this is true.  Why?  Because when you can listen well, you can actually hear where the conversation needs to go and then take it there.  Being able to listen allows you to understand what’s being said, and determine in turn how to respond. 

Here’s a key distinction: listening is about far more than just being silent. (Let that sink in for a moment). 

Listening is about staying engaged and paying attention.  Too often, someone will stop talking but rather than actually listening to what’s being said, they’ll stay stuck in their head trying to craft a witty response.  That isn’t listening. It’s not being present. And it doesn’t contribute to deepening relationships or solving problems. It’s actually a very ego-centric way of being in relationship.  

So let me ask you: do you know how to listen?  Really listen? Listen meaningfully in a way that takes the conversation deeper and forward all at the same time? It’s really not that difficult.  Three steps is all it takes: 

1.     Stop talking.  Simple and very effective.

2.     Pay attention.  Stop your mind chatter and put your attention on the other person.  Use your eyes if you need to – watch, and gently focus your attention on what is being said to you.

3.     Let go of whatever direction you thought the conversation was going.  Don’t worry about following a proscribed path to your desired destination.  Instead, go where the conversation needs to go. 

If you follow these three steps, you’re ability to listen will increase, and by extension, so will your ability to converse meaningfully.  When you converse meaningfully, you’re able share your thoughts with others and have those thoughts be heard. And the same holds true for the others in the conversation. End result? All parties in a conversation feel truly heard, together you are better able to implement whatever change is needed (if that’s what’s at stake), you’re able to function as a more cohesive unit, creating greater ease overall. 

Bottom-line:  you know that there’s something you want to do -- whether it’s at work, at home, or  in the world at large. There are things you’re striving to create, to facilitate, to change.  The way to do this is to engage with others, to have conversations that matter.  To have a conversation, you’ve got to know how to talk, for sure; more importantly, you’ve got to know how to listen.  Learn how to listen, and you’ll actually accomplish great things.