The last few years I have been working on becoming a better listener, and I am still not great at it. Advice from Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People is helpful for anyone who wants to be a better listener, and has made me a better listener during the times I have remembered it. His advice is fairly simple and summed up by one of his principles to live by, “Principle 4: Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.”
A funny scene occurs in a lot of movies is one where one person is doing all the talking in a scene. They may be venting about their problems, rambling on about an idea they had, or just blurting out a string of facts and opinions. The other character in the scene usually won’t have a chance to get a word in, or will be so unsure of what to actually say that they just stammer or shrug, not actually saying a word. The character who does all the talking then turns to them and comments on how good the conversation has been, when in reality there was no conversation or dialogue, just a monologue from a single person.
These scenes work from a comical perspective, but they are not far from reality for many of our conversations. Even Carnegie has a line in his book about talking to a botanist that aligns with that common comedy scene. “And so I had him thinking of me as a good conversationalist when, in reality, I had been merely a good listener and had encouraged him to talk.”
People want to be listened to for validation. They want someone to hear their ideas, to acknowledge their complaints and suffering, and to share their perspective on the world. People seek audiences.
We can be receptive audiences, but often times our own desire for an audience gets in the way of us being the good listening audience for others. We want to talk as much as other people in our conversations, and don’t actually want to listen to them and provide the validation, empathy, and acknowledgement that they are looking for.
Carnegie continues on what happens when we fail to listen, “If you want to know how to make people shun you and laugh at you behind your back and even despise you, here is the recipe: Never listen to anyone for long. Talk incessantly about yourself. If you have an idea while the other person is talking, don’t wait for him or her to finish: bust right in and interrupt in the middle of a sentence.”
To be a good listener you have to let others talk, and the good news is that other people love talking about themselves. Simple questions and acknowledgement of other people’s challenges and thoughts can allow them to continue to talking about themselves, and they will find you to be a good conversation partner who listens to what they really have to say. This builds trust and relationships, helping you become closer with the people around you.