Really Listening to Others

Listening Is The Better Part of Speaking – Sarah Kay

Sarah Kay’s Ted talk titled “If I Should Have A Daughter” was worth the 30 minutes it took for our dinosaur-age-speed internet in Chicago to load it. I also enjoyed the discussion she had with On Being’s Krista Tippet, particularly her thoughts on choosing our words with care, and the weekly exercise she does in her workshops. During this exercise she urges each of the participants to come up with a list of things that they know to be true. The example she cites in On Being for this exercise is that her name is Sarah, and that she was named for her grandfather, named Stewart. She urges each person to think of things that are not only true, but interesting and unique.


This was my favorite part of the interview because as of late I have been thinking about how I’d like to improve the ways I connect with people. I am really, phenomenally good at talking about myself. Because of my tendency to over-share, you can ask me questions all day long and I will keep reflecting my answers back at you. I can think of so many instances where I have walked away from a conversation realizing that I spent so much time reflecting and pontificating, but I didn’t spend any time absorbing. The person I just spent time with knows more about me than they might ever want to know, but I can’t remember a single thing about them, sometimes not even their name.

I don’t want to make it sound like I greedily talk about myself, overpowering anyone who tries to take a moment to share. It’s more that I don’t know what questions to ask them, or I feel a bit anxious about silence and want to fill in the spaces. The problem has been exacerbated over the years with my blog, as I interact with people who know far more about me than I do about them, which provides them an opportunity to ask specific questions that strangers would never think to ask each other (or if they did it might be considered inappropriate or strange to do so). I am better at holding mutually beneficial conversations when it is with someone I know, particularly when we have an extensive shared history, but I still often feel like I did far more speaking than listening.

As with all things, the first step to fixing this character flaw is acknowledging that it is a problem for me. When making phone calls or spending time with family members and friends I can take a moment before our conversation begins and remind myself that the goal is to learn more about them than they learned about me. The area I’d like to most focus on though, is when I meet new people. I have a friend who was a pharmaceutical rep (I hear she was the best of the best) and I always in awe whenever we get together in social situations, particularly cocktail parties hosted by That Husband’s work. She is a master at conversing with everyone, from the wife of a new hire to the partner of a prestigious firm. I want to be just like her.

Unfortunately I freeze up a little bit when meeting new people. Once we get past their name (which I often forget as soon as it’s said, despite my efforts to lock it deep in my brain) I’m out of ideas. On my Just A Mom post we got into a great discussion about how some people feel frustrated that their profession is sometimes used to define them (particularly when our culture places great importance on specific professions and those in certain fields feel discredited), and so I want to get in the habit of using some alternative phrases in order to get to know people. Some of the fabulous suggestions proffered up include:

How do you spend your time?

Where are you from?” (This is my contribution to the brainstorming, it’s the least risky and inventive)

What are your hobbies?” and “What are you passionate about?” from Kayla

and my personal favorite from JanssenWhat do you like to do?


I’m writing this on June 7th, and as soon as I hit schedule I’m heading out to dinner with some people I haven’t met in real life. I’m going to make it my goal to work some of the above phrases into my conversations.

Does conversing meaningfully with strangers and acquaintances come easily for you? How do you make meaningful connections with those you don’t know well? If this wasn’t a natural skill for you, how did you develop it?



19 thoughts on “Really Listening to Others

  1. I’m also a talker. I have found that if a) I nod my head and say “Mmmm,” people will talk and b) I can always ask them, “And why do you think that is?” about anything:).

  2. Love this post. About a month ago I mentioned to my husband that I can no longer converse with people very well. And he said the following: “You never knew how to. What you use to know how to do is talk about yourself. You don’t do that anymore.” And he is so right. It has been a goal of mine to learn to converse well with others, but its going to take a long time for me to get even a tiny bit better.

  3. What a great post.

    I feel like my problem is more of a “I’d rather NOT make conversation with someone I don’t know well” issue. But over the years, as I’ve met more and more people, I think it’s gotten easier for me to talk to people and get to know them (frankly, though, I love people like you because then I can ask a few questions and then just let them talk and talk and talk. So much less effort for me and I find other people interesting!)

  4. I have a really hard time meeting new people, too. And I always feel weird when people ask what I do and I tell them I’m in grad school, and then, often, they are put off by that and the conversation fizzles. I love the idea of brainstorming questions to ask like the ones above. I also get anxious talking about myself, though. I feel pressure to have the “right” answers to make people like me. It’s definitely something I’m working on, since I’m going on the job market this year.

  5. It’s good to be engaged and good to be a good listener, but don’t be afraid of talking about yourself!

    It makes my life so much easier at cocktail parties and the like to be able to talk to someone who actually wants to talk! And I can just be a good listener and ask follow-up questions and suddenly it’s been 5-10 minutes and there have been no uncomfortable ummms and silences. People think I’m a blast at cocktail parties and think I’m such a great conversationalist, but really, I’m just happy to listen to other people and not talk much at all!

  6. Good for you for noticing this and wanting to change it, that’s huge. I’m more of a listener than a talker and I think it comes intuitively because I’m 1) genuinely curious about people and 2) secretly shy though most people don’t think so when they meet me. It’s kind of exhausting sometimes being around people who only talk about themselves but at the same time being cornered and asked a bunch of contrived, forced “get to know you” questions makes me feel like I’m at a job interview or a cheesy HR-sponsored team building meeting.

    If someone I don’t know came up to me and said “So, what are you passionate about?” I’d freeze up and wonder if they were about to sell me something. I think the best conversations are the ones that unfold organically. Usually when meeting someone you already know a few things about them that can lead to natural sounding questions that hopefully lead to more conversation. Simple things like “So, you work with so-and-so? What’s that like?” Or “I heard you just came back from Costa Rica. I’ve always wanted to go, how was it?” Try being observant and remembering little things you hear about people from mutual acquaintances. Observing something amusing happening at a gathering is always a great ice breaker because it’s neutral and not about either person. If all else fails compliment someone’s dress or their children or whatever is available to compliment. I might be in the minority but I think your “Where are you from?” question is much more conversational and less awkward than the other examples listed. People asking where I’m from can lead to talking about the places I’ve lived, places the other person has lived, places both people fantasize about living, all kinds of fun stuff. :)

  7. Reflective conversation is a fine tuned skill. Some people have the knack for it, but it’s also a skill you can improve upon if you need to.
    It’s something I’m incredibly grateful to my sorority years (past and present as a mentor) for and something that you’ll find is a common trait among those in the Greek community. Let me know if you want me to send you a recruitment tip sheet via email ;) Forced conversation between dozens of people day after day is an easy way to master conversation skills.
    Some basics:
    For name memory, repeat the person’s name when you meet them, introduce them to someone else and say their name again when you leave. Reflect questions back with information they gave you – “You said you like to…” or “You mentioned looking forward to …..” Listen, so you don’t end up hopping to too many questions. And always have a YOU rather than ME attitude in a conversation. You don’t need anyone else in the room to talk about and to yourself.
    The most memorable people I’ve met in conversations aren’t those who shared the most about themselves, but those that made me feel completely at ease with myself in a conversation and made me feel happy to have met them.

  8. I’m kind of the same in some ways. When I’m with people I already have a solid relationship with, I tend to talk to much and have to remind myself that conversations are a two-way street. That’s when I just have to think that maybe the other person likes to discuss themselves just as much as I do about myself and really I’ll have an even closer, meaningful relationship with them. When it comes to people I’ve just met or don’t know as well, that’s when I kind of shut down. I become uncharacteristically shy and reserved because I just feel like if I open up and show people who I really am, they won’t like me and so I’m a bit slow when I’m not in my comfort zone.

    It’s funny because, you’ve posted about doing fun things with friends you’ve met in each of the places you’ve lived and I’m so jealous because we’ve lived in this area for two and half (almost three) years and we’re still in that awkward don’t-know-too-many-people-and-don’t-hang-out-much phase. Hahaha.

  9. I am terrible with this. I tend to just talk and talk – I think I end up sounding self-absorbed when in actual fact my mind just goes empty when meeting new people and whatever I pops into my head comes out of my mouth. Either that or I freeze up entirely and people assume that I am just unfriendly or snooty. Neither are true, I am just painfully shy and mask it with run-on sentences or absolute silence!

    This post is full of great advice on how to handle it. The time when it frustrates me most is doing client consults. In so many cases I just sink like a lead balloon when my eagerness to book a wedding combines with my nervousness.

  10. This is such an interesting topic. I struggle with this too, although not in my case because I’m really comfortable talking about myself. For me it’s more that I’m a little shy and feel self-conscious around those I don’t know well, so my brain kind of freezes up.

    My grandmother was a very extroverted, social person (the kind with literally dozens of close friends), and I was always in awe of her ability to have meaningful, deep conversations with just about anyone. She did this not with any special conversational tricks or phrases, but simply because she was truly interested in other people and what they thought. She told me that whenever she met someone new, she approached it with the attitude, “What can I learn from this person?” She also believed that just about everyone had something interesting to tell you, and that it was just a matter of getting on the right topic.

    It’s hard for me to keep this attitude up (especially because I tend towards being judgmental of others, not the best way to meet new people), but when I have been successful, I have found that she was completely right. I think that others can really sense a genuine interest in them (partly by body language, like active listening, eye contact and an intense focus on what they’re saying), and that’s the important thing, rather than any one particular question. A natural voracious curiosity about the world and other people does help tremendously (certainly a prominent feature of my grandmother’s personality), but I think such a skill can be developed too.

  11. I am such an introvert. I know some people thrive on it, but given the choice, I’d always rather spend time with myself (and a book!) than going out and meeting a bunch of new people. However, we don’t always get what we want.

    Somehow, I seem to do quite well in these types of situations. I don’t think it’s about memorising lines, or keeping score about who talks more. I believe the key to these initial conversations is being a genuinely happy person, and being genuinely interested in the other person. Being happy is important because people gravitate towards positive people. It’s one of those states where you either are or you aren’t. It’s no good to adopt that grating, fake relentless positivity that you see sometimes, because it starts off as annoying and edges towards being creepy. If you’re warm and relaxed, and genuinely happy to be alive, it will come across and people will want to be around you.

    Being interested in the other person is equally important. When someone feels that you’re engaged in the conversation and that you care about what they’re saying, they feel appreciated and they will look back on the interaction fondly. Furthermore, if you’re genuinely interested in that person and what they’re telling you, you won’t need to worry about what to say to fill a silence, because you’ll naturally want to know more and will ask the right questions to get there.

    tldr: Being a good conversationalist isn’t about what you say, it’s about how you are. Good luck, let us all know how it goes.

  12. This is very difficult for me as well. I find it interesting that my quiet, almost shy husband has the best conversations with strangers all the time. The guy sitting next to him at the ballpark, the person in line at the grocery store,etc. I am pretty outgoing but clueless. I meet many patients a day which can be hard because many of them don’t have much in common with me. I like to ask “How do you spend your time?” It is a good start when you know nothing about someone except that they need a tooth removed. The problem comes when they say, “I dunno, I don’t do anything.” Awkward. But hopefully most people you meet in social circles will have a job or hobby…

  13. I do the same exact thing! I employ 2 strategies:

    1. Ask 2 questions for every 1 statement you make. Start asking specific questions when you get an answer to a broad one. Like, ‘How did you get into that hobby’ or ‘What made you decide to choose X as a career’. Ask questions that require long answers so you have time to think of something else to ask. This will help with your uncomfortable silence problem.

    2. Limit the number of times you say ‘I’ to 10 in a conversation. This is HARD. It will take some practice. Especially because you’ll use it a handful of times in your very initial introduction.

    These 2 rules have helped me greatly!

  14. Hey Jenna!

    Talking to strangers comes naturally to me now and I owe it all to my babysitting days…you know, those awkward car rides when the mom or dad of the kids you were babysitting takes you home…I always prayed it would be the mom…it was just that much more awkward if it was the dad… Then after that, running for student body office at Utah State helped me with talking to strangers…and then going on a mission helped me…we used to walk up to people on the street in rural Argentina and ask them if we could sing to them! That seems crazy now!

    I think another great conversation kindler is to comment or ask someone about an interesting piece of jewelry, shoes, handbag, scarf…whatever!


  15. interesting post . . . i’m much more of a listener than a talker. it is easy for me to think of questions to ask people. that being said, i do always appreciate it when someone makes an effort to ask a few questions back. it isn’t a good feeling to leave a conversation and realize that whomever I was speaking to never bothered to ask me a single question.

    If you are good at talking about yourself, you could always just ask the other person what their thought/opinion/experience is about whatever you just shared. then, once you have them sharing a bit you can ask them questions about whatever they say!

  16. It’s really good you’ve become aware of this trait and are working on changing it. This whole post reminded me of a coworker no one in my office can stand. She comes ups to people and starts talking about her life (which is boring) and every little thing about her. No hi, how was your weekend, how are you, nothing. It’s all about herherher. She talks AT people instead of TO them. Everyone does their best to avoid her because she is totally clueless, over-shares and never has anything intelligent to say!

  17. Jenna – I am so proud to see how you are growing in awareness and constantly challenging yourself -good for you!

    I am definitely more of a listener – the type of person who seems to be on the other end of what I call “me-me”‘s – people who love to talk all about themselves!

    Many years ago I read this Barbara Walters book called How To Talk To Practically Anybody About Practically Anything – it’s totally retro but such a fantastic handbook about how to start up conversations. I really recommend it – you can find it in libraries and there are some used versions on Amazon.

  18. I like that you bring up that people often ask about your profession and that it tends to define a person … any more I tend to get a non-response once my job comes up. I’m a project manager (that seems vague to most folks, I think, although Ty Pennington makes it look so exciting) at a bank (boring, I assume to most people). Funny thing, I like what I do. When I worked in advertising, at least people asked if it was like Mad Men (it’s not).

    The other thought … in grad school (I went to divinity school) I took pastoral counseling as a course because I wanted to better understand what to say to someone when they announced that someone close to them had passed on. I knew I was terrible at that conversation, or at least it made me feel really awkward and I really wanted to be compassionate about it and share with a person if that’s what they needed. What I learned has helped in many situations. Reflecting back what you hear someone saying shows attentive listening, helps me remember what the person said, and invites the person to share more. It makes the discussion go deeper, and dig in to the heart of the matter, whether the issue is about death or something less intimidating. I’m glad I took that course :)

  19. My husband always asks people a question very similar to yours about how people spend the time. He simply asks, “What keeps you busy?” That way, if people want to answer what they do for work, they can, but don’t feel obligated to, or they can say what they’re passionate about. I admit it generally pulls out the first, but I think does so in a non-impolite-that-is-the-only-thing-that-matters-about-you way.

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