Mastering first impressions by learning to listen

I don’t think enough before I speak and so I often say the wrong thing at the wrong time.  And when I get nervous I have a terrible habit of talking too much.  So you can imagine that these two things lead to a lot of bad first impressions.

Of course people can make bad impressions for lots of reasons, but most of them come down to not engaging enough, saying things that make people feel awkward, or dominating the conversation.  And amazingly, the solution to these problems comes down to the same thing – learning to actively listen and engage with your conversation partner.

If you are following my blog you probably know that I am an introvert and that I grew up as a bit of a misfit.  My lack of social skills became very clear when I couldn’t get (or keep) dates, but also at work when my interactions with coworkers were often tense, uncomfortable, and strained.  People just didn’t really like engaging with me.

One day I decided that I really needed a change, so I did what any geeky introvert would do – I went to the bookstore and bought some books on conversations, talking to people, and relationships.  I read books like How to Talk to Anyone and Conversationally Speaking; and well as books like How to Win Friends and Influence People and The 48 Laws of Power (both of which make you feel kind of slimy after reading) – and many others. I poured over content and then spent time applying the lessons to my life.The greatest gift you can give another is the purity of your attention quote

In all the books though there were some key lessons that really stuck with me:

  • Make it about the other person.
    Focus the conversation on the other person, what they like and have an interest in.  Ask them questions about things that stir up positive emotions, like vacations, hobbies and current events.  Try to get them to do most of the talking and be sure to take a genuine interest in their story.  This will only work well if you are authentic and interested in what they have to say.  However, even the most mundane people can have very interesting stories – so see it as your mission to find theirs.
  • Avoid negative topics.
    Misery loves company of course, but if you talk about something bad, hurtful, or sad then that person will associate those emotions and feelings with your interaction – and that isn’t a good thing.  Make an effort to direct the conversation toward positive or upbeat topics.  Try to find things that both of you like, and even try to ask questions that bring up positive thoughts and memories for your conversation partner.  And always try to end on a positive note; something as simple “As it was great talking with you, and I hope I will  do so in the future” will work nicely.
  • Ask questions and listen for responses.
    This means don’t interrupt and jump into the conversation – even if you have something to say.  Respond to thoughts with additional questions, or offer small tokens of your story to keep things engaging and symbiotic for all parties.  Try to focus on what the other person is saying, and not just with their words, but also their body language and tone.  I will sometimes make a game out of it by looking for tells and trying to get better at detecting a person’s true feelings and emotions through their non-verbal clues.
  • Take notes.
    If you are at work and have a hard time paying attention in meetings, try taking notes during the conversation.  This works wonders for me.  I have a hard time paying attention, especially if I am not interested in the conversation or feel like I have little to contribute.  In these cases I try to take notes about ideas off my “to think” list (it is a like a “to do” list only for ideas that need processing – like future blog posts or projects), or outline action items from the conversation.  A notebook is also far less intrusive than the dividing laptop screen, typing away on your phone (the worst) and certainly more preferable than staring off into space zoning out.   Of course paying attention to the conversation at hand, asking good questions, and contributing thoughtful responses is the ideal outcome though.


Do you have issues with active listening?

Here are some exercises adapted from my lessons above to help you become a better listener:

  1. Stop talking.  Quiet the voice in your mind, and try not to open your mouth during the conversation.  Try to listen to your voice within and focus on what is said.  Try to have conversations by saying little but keeping the other person talking. (Of course if your issues is not-engaging or participating in conversations you may want to skip this one!)
  2. Focus on the conversation and nothing else.  Be genuinely interested in the conversation so look and act involved; don’t do anything else. How did this experience feel?  Was it difficult to do?  How do you think your conversation partners perceived you?
  3. Reverse the conversation and imagine the other person’s experience. Imagine yourself in the other person’s position, their stance, and their impressions.  What are the other person’s values and points of view?  If they are younger, imagine yourself with their experience.  Does it change your perception?  How do you think the other person perceived you and your contributions to the conversation?
  4. Speak only positively while engaged in a conversation.  Be affirmative and resist the urge to jump in with any critical or disparaging comments. Use only constructive replies, and positive words.  Afterward assess how you felt about the conversation and how your partner felt.  How can you give constructive criticism in a positive way in the future?
  5. Observe the non-verbal communication of others.  Sit in a busy place and observe what is going on around you, if you can try to guess what other people are thinking and feeling without hearing them.  Next time you are talking with some try to see their non-verbal signals and try to determine if they are inconsistent with their verbal messages.  Is there added meaning or emotion beyond what is spoken?
  6. Listen and the repeat back your interpretation. Next time you are in a conversation, or disagreement (since that is where this technique can work best) repeat back your understanding of what was said.  To make sure that there is mutual understanding try rephrasing what the other person has told you at relevant chances in the conversation.  Do you already do this?  How does it work?  What happens if you ask someone else to repeat back your thoughts in an argument?
  7. Spend a full day without interrupting.  Resist the urge to jump in.   Sit and listen, even if it is past your normal tolerance level.  How often does it happen?  Is it hard to do this?  How do you think others perceived the chance to express all of their thoughts?
  8. Listen closely and try to glean implicit meanings.  As your conversation partner speaks, what is their tone?  What sort of figures of speech do they use, what words do they emphasize?  Consider their connotations as well as denotations.  Are there things they don’t say or explain?  Ask about things that may not be apparent or clear from the conversation.  Do you learn anything more by paying attention to these details?


Do you have other resources, ideas or suggestions to help improve listening and conversational skills?
If so, please leave them in the comments.

[edited 6/23] This is a great post from HBR with some additional tips on listening.


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