Cultivate a Listening Mindset
The older we get, the more distinct our tastes, preferences, and interests can become. There’s nothing wrong with not being curious about certain topics—you can honor your selective interests and still show up for others. Instead of dreading conversations about topics you’re not particularly interested in, or with people with whom you have little in common, you can proactively combat boredom with a simple pep talk.
First, acknowledge that this conversation isn’t interesting to you, whether you’re listening to your co-worker talk about the latest biography she’s reading, a genre of book you have never voluntarily picked up, going deep with your nephew on the intricacies of science fiction characters you’ve never heard of, or talking politics at a dinner party when you’d rather not, thank you very much. Then, tell yourself something like: This may not be my favorite subject, but I can handle it. Or, This might be a boring topic, but I can manage this. From there, challenge yourself to stay active and alert in the conversation you’re in, rather than playing it easy and zoning out.
The easiest place to be in conversation is in our own heads—judging, assuming, and projecting our experience onto others. The best way to get out of this kind of surface listening is to put yourself in other people’s shoes, stay humble, and get curious. Bringing these qualities into conversation sets us on the path to connection.
When we stay present while listening, we invite our conversation partners to share their experience, perspective, and feelings with us without interruption or distraction. This allows us to learn about them—how they think and feel, and what makes them unique—and from them, too. By being aware of our wandering thoughts, trusting in our memory, and practicing patience, we can show up for our conversation partner in the same way we’d like them to show up for us. Invest in your relationships by noticing when you become distracted and cooling your jets when your thoughts come into the picture. Above all, focus.
Observe as You Listen
Body language, word choice, and voice quality offer us a fuller, more nuanced understanding of what our conversation partner is experiencing. Through careful observation, try to understand what these cues indicate about you, the conversation topic, and the surrounding environment and deepen the conversation.
Deepen the Conversation
Instead of asking “Was it tough being the first researcher on the team?” (Assumption: It must have been hard to do everything by yourself.), try “What was it like to be the first researcher on the team?”
Instead of asking “So you want kids because you’re getting older?” (Assumption: You must be desperate to get pregnant by now.), try “What draws you to having a family now?”
Instead of asking “Did that meeting upset you?” (Assumption: You don’t seem happy with how that went.), try “How do you think that meeting went?”
So much of how we move through the world is by habit, including how we ask questions. But the disconnecting questions we often rely on can backfire and keep us in our own experience. If you’re tired of getting one-word responses from your partner, colleague, lover, or sibling, it’s time to start asking a different kind of question. With connecting questions, we can go beyond the superficial and get to know our conversation partner much more deeply.
To tap into our greatest empathetic selves, we need to stay flexible and open in conversation. When our conversation takes a detour or does not go as expected, throwing away our script can get us closer to the connection we are looking for. Our conversations may look different than we’d imagined, but they’ll still be just as meaningful as, if not more meaningful than, before.
Confirm Your Comprehension
On TV, misunderstandings are the stuff sitcoms are made of. But off-screen, the results are often far less humorous. When we misinterpret others or are misinterpreted ourselves, we begin to feel disconnected from each other and alone in our experience (Why doesn’t she get me?). To avoid hurting others’ feelings, becoming a punch line yourself, or making decisions under false assumptions, you’ll want to confirm your comprehension of what your partner is saying in conversation.
Try the following phrases:
- What do you mean by that?
- I’m not sure I follow. I’m wondering if that means . . .
- I think I’m missing something. Can you break it down for me?
- Help me to understand your thinking. Do you mean that . . .
- Help me understand how you are feeling. Is it that . . .
- My understanding is . . . Please correct me if I’m wrong.
Guide the Conversation
When you can tell that a conversation has become unproductive or unsafe, you can tactfully employ redirecting phrases to guide it in the right direction. Having these phrases in our tool kit helps us stay active and engaged instead of tuning out or sitting back when our conversation partner needs us most.
Try, for instance:
- I’m not comfortable with where this conversation is going. Let’s look at . . . instead.
- This conversation is getting out of hand, and I feel compelled to step in. I recommend we shift to . . . instead.
- This is totally unprofessional and uncalled for. A better subject would be . . .
- It seems like we are getting ourselves unnecessarily riled up. Why don’t we talk about . . . instead.
Make an Exit
The following phrases can help:
- I’m afraid I’m not being helpful here. I wonder if we should look elsewhere to make progress.
- We’ve done some good work here. To get to the next level, I’d recommend reaching out to someone with more [relevant history, expertise, etc.].
- It sounds like . . . is still on your mind. Perhaps it’s time to [seek input elsewhere, take a break from the issue, etc.].
When called for, you can create distance by following these steps:
Reduce interactions. Declining social outings or work lunches may seem extreme, but is it, if your well-being is at stake? Assuming it’s an option, reduce how frequently you see your conversation partner. Schedule meetings with a certain co-worker once a month instead of once a week, and push your monthly happy hour with a certain friend to quarterly.
Generate space. Notice how quickly you respond to your conversation partner. Do you answer their every beck and call right away? Try to pause before you instinctively respond to that text or email. If it’s not urgent, give yourself space to breathe first.
Be open to changing course. Guess what? Your conversation partner may notice that you are creating distance. (If they do not, you might take that as evidence that you’ve made the right choice.) If they do and follow up with you (I’ve noticed you haven’t been available lately. Is everything OK?), consider this an olive branch. Pick up the call, accept the dinner invite, meet for that coffee, and see if continuing to distance yourself from this relationship still makes sense.
Sometimes we have to call it. When a conversation can no longer be redirected, has become unsafe, or has drained our energy reserves, empathetic listening becomes impossible, and our best bet may be to end the conversation. As your listening skills improve, you may have to do this more often: more people may seek you out for your kind ear, and more frequently, and you will need to draw the line.
Give Yourself Space to Recover
Empathetic listening takes work, but if we’re not careful, in our attempts to take care of others we can forget to take care of ourselves. When this happens, we become tired, burned out, and no longer capable of connecting or listening with empathy. By managing our listening drain and giving ourselves opportunities to recover, we can start feeling better and connect once more. Only when we feel recharged and steady in ourselves can we truly make space for others.