Listen: This Habit Will Dramatically Improve Your Conversations

Your non-stop talking makes you seem like a jerk. I’ve never met you before, so if you are perfect at listening in a conversation, I apologize. That message wasn’t intended for you. But a lot of people do have a problem with listening. They fill conversations with the sound of their voice. I know, because I’m one of them. The listening habit has been something I’ve been trying to build with myself. There are plenty of selfish (and non-selfish) reasons why becoming a better listener is useful. I’m sure you don’t want to miss out, just because neither of us run out of things to say.

Some Selfish Reasons to Listen More

It’s easy to think of the selfless reasons to listen. People want you to listen to them. By listening, you can help someone with a problem, or help them come up with new ideas. But listening also has selfish benefits that make it worth the investment.

The biggest selfish benefit is that you learn more with your mouth closed. You’ll learn more about other people, and often, about yourself, if you stop talking. Those ideas are useful if you want to improve yourself. Going without feedback is improving in a vacuum, it’s almost impossible to do.

Listening also helps you think. When you’re truly listening, not just waiting for your turn to speak, you can chew over your ideas more. You can mull on points of the conversation longer. In the end, you’ll appear a lot wiser if you explain a fully-digested point of view, than if you just blurt out the first response that comes to mind.

Building the listening habit also makes better friends than trying to be an impressive conversationalist. People like the guy who listens more than the guy with the best jokes or funniest anecdotes. Be interested, rather than interesting.

How to Build the Listening Habit

The amount you talk is a function of your conversation style. Some people won’t have trouble holding back comments and can easily listen in a conversation. If you’re like me, you’re instinct is to treat conversations like a battleground, loading ammunition and firing ideas to match the wits of whoever you’re competing against. Unfortunately, unless you meet up with a person of the same style, the other person may have to surrender to your barrage of comments.

Building the listening habit doesn’t come easily to everyone. But, even if you never run out of things to say, you can improve. I’ve used a few strategies to become a better listener that you may find useful.

Bait Them

If the person you’re talking with doesn’t feel too chatty, bait them with a comment. Throw something at them which will make it easy for them to talk. The most common route for this is to ask them questions about themselves. “Me” tends to be the most popular subject, so getting a person to talk about themselves is an easy target for conversations.

Going the “me” route isn’t always the best strategy. If the conversation steers away from things you both have in common, you may have a hard time listening. It’s hard to have a twenty minute conversation with a sailing enthusiast if you’ve never been on a boat before.

In those cases, I suggest picking conversation points which are easy to relate to. This will be different in each person, but sports, travel or work can all be common threads.

Master the Short Anecdote

I remember being taught that listening was making comments like, “I see,” and “Uh-huh,” while nodding my head. This is one of the worst ways to carry on a conversation. Listening shouldn’t force the other person to do a monologue.

A better strategy to listen is to master the short anecdote. This is a 2-3 sentence comment on something that the other person has said. If they are telling a long explanation of their work as an accountant, you could comment on someone you know that does accounting or something you know about accounting.

Short anecdotes are better than blanket signs of listening (“I see…”) for a few reasons:

1. They break up the conversation. You give the person long enough to think of new ideas, without hijacking the conversation thread.

2. They show you are genuinely listening. You can make blanket statements without actually hearing anything. Short anecdotes show you are actively listening to the other person.

3. They give the other person a chance to conclude or switch topics. Instead of letting a conversation die off, small comments offer the opportunity for that person to switch topics without an awkward pause.

Watch the Conversation Balance

If you’re having a longer conversation, pay attention to how long you talk. If you notice you’re starting to dominate the conversation, step back and bait the other person. This way you can sit back and listen.

All of these tactics might seem a bit too detailed for regular conversations. Shouldn’t you just be natural, and not worry about the exact percentages of who says what? In that, I’d have to agree with you. Conversations should be natural, so worrying about the details of who is talking or explicitly trying to bait someone is stupid.

However, listening is important. You might not even realize that you’re ignoring the other person or dominating the conversation. Listening helps you learn, think and make connections. People who accidentally trample the conversation may be missing out on opportunities they would have, if they just learned to listen.



Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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