There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak. – Simon Sinek
I used to want to be the center of attention at a party. I was good at it, too. I would make my entrance and charm and chatter my way into everyone’s good graces. As I got older, I realized the motivation for this compulsion of mine was to quell the social anxiety I felt when walking into a group of people I didn’t know. If I could get people to listen to what I had to say, I felt included and viable, which calmed my nerves.
I also realized that the more comfortable I became with myself the less attention I needed from those around me in social situations. Additionally, I realized that while my behavior meant that people knew who I was by the end of the party, I never got to know who they were.
When interacting with other people, too many of us are caught up in wanting to impress, in order to feel valuable to others, so we talk… and talk and talk. While talking may calm us in the moment it can be tiring for those on the receiving end of our chatter – especially if they never get their turn to be heard.
In the workplace, I have found that finishing an entire sentence without being interrupted by a colleague has become nearly impossible. A natural reaction to someone’s interruption is to talk louder and longer than they do. However, over time, this response can turn us into the type of person whom others need to speak over, so that they may be heard.
I was raised to believe that my ability to impart knowledge to others was what made me valuable to them. It’s no wonder that I wound up in the legal profession, where I am supposed to know more than most about certain topics and I am paid to impart my expertise. However, it also means that I spend my days with other attorneys who believe that imparting knowledge is where their value lies as well and that they too are supposed to know more than most. This environment results in a lot of people talking and interrupting one another – and not much listening.
As I settle into middle age, I am increasingly exhausted by either fighting to be heard or by having to listen to someone else’s incessant yapping. I am now comfortable with my philosophy that if something or somebody feels like too much of a struggle, then I’m probably in the wrong place or with the wrong people. Instead, I naturally gravitate to people and situations in which I feel heard and in which I can listen to others. I’ve found that really getting to know people and relating to them well is what truly energizes me.
I still need to remind myself to listen more and to resist the temptation to interrupt, especially in high pressure situations. These skills can be learned, even by those of us who quell our social anxiety by imparting that oh-so-fascinating knowledge of ours.
If you lapse into over-talking in social situations, or feel trapped listening to someone who does, try this at your next social gathering. When introduced to someone, really listen to what he or she has to say. Show your interest in finding out about someone else by asking open-ended questions that elicit what is important to him or her – not what is important to you.
Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to find anything in common with someone in order to connect. When I was younger, I would often ask people what they did for a living, since that was what was important to me. I’ve noticed that my husband asks others where they are from so that he can try to find people that they know in common. I’ve had women open a conversation with me by asking if I had children. When I answered that I did not, some seemed a little lost about what to discuss next. Even seemingly neutral topics like books, movies, travel or restaurants can fall flat.
You can start out by asking wide-open questions, such as, “So, what were you up to today?” If asked in a light-hearted manner, people will automatically respond by focusing on those topics that are most important to them. You don’t have to know anything about their topic or be able to relate to it in any way in order to engage with them. The point is to really listen to someone in order to learn about who they are, what’s important to them and what energizes them. It’s all about them.
By the end of the night others with whom you engaged will feel heard and valued. They will remember you as a thoughtful and interesting person. Fortunately, you will remember them as well. You will have provided them with the space to share who they are from an authentic place, giving you the opportunity to know them in a way you never would have, had you been trying to impress them. Truly listening to others enables you to make connections, which is ultimately what makes us feel seen, heard and included.