Active listening is probably the conversational skill Millennials are the most sorely lacking in. Somewhere along the way, we stopped listening, stopped caring about listening, and thus stopped knowing how to listen. There is nothing that will help your small talk more than active listening.
When we truly listen—making appropriate eye contact—the other person feels at ease in the conversation. They feel you actually care what they have to say. Think back to the last time you were talking to someone who clearly did not care what you had to say and was just waiting for their turn to talk. They may even have interrupted you to insert their thought. That’s not a conversation both of you enjoy; it’s one-sided.
Learning the importance of listening involves some humility. It involves thinking more highly of the other person and what they have to say than you would otherwise. Even if they are saying something completely inane that they have said a thousand times before, try to listen as though at any moment they may say something life changing. They’re saying what they’re saying for a reason; if it’s an enigma to you, asking questions to figure out why it’s important to them.
The secret to effective listening is concentration. At first, it will take enormous concentration to become a better listener in conversation. Over time, though, it will develop into a habit. If it helps, think of your attention as a laser beam. A giant, red laser beam, like when Cyclops from X-Men takes off his visor. Like your attention, the laser has to be controlled, or it’s all over the place. You need to focus it on the person who is talking to you. Always, always focus on that person, and try to ignore everything else going on.
When I was learning how to be better at conversation, I would observe how the average person reacts when interrupted by an external stimulus. Sometimes I would see it coming and watch with anticipation. For example, Person A is involved in a conversation and, unbeknownst to them, one of their buddies, Person B, shows up. Person B walks over and says hi, and I observe how surprised Person A is to see them. What they say, their tone, their volume, and their gesturing. Nowadays, most of the time I’m the “Person A” being interrupted by the external stimulus. The difference between the two comes down to one thing: Concentration. Nowadays, after learning this lesson, instead of observing others, I generally don’t care what everyone else is doing because I’m focused on the person I’m talking to. In fact, I might even react with slight annoyance if interrupted by something or someone, depending on who or what it is. Guess what? That’s what everyone else has doing all along.
The Importance of Eye Contact
Eye contact is trickier than listening, I will admit. It’s usually not hard to make eye contact with a close friend or family member, because you are usually relaxed around that person. After all, important signals are sent through the eyes, and you don’t want to miss them. However, with people you are not as comfortable around, it’s harder.
Concentration is also the key to improving eye contact. However, don’t think of it in the laser beam way. Think of it as being so absorbed with the conversation that you are dying to know the next thing they have to say. In fact, even if it’s a conversation you hate, it may still be in your best interest to do this because they may say something that gives you an out. Crude, but true. But back to most conversations, which you (hopefully) don’t hate, you will find yourself staring full-force into their eyes, yet not in a creepy way. The kind of staring into their eyes that I am talking about is essentially mining them for conversation. They will keep talking and eventually say something that spurs a response from you. When responding, you’ll keep staring into their eyes because you’re trying to communicate at full blast what you want to say as efficiently as possible, and using eye contact in combination with all other verbal and non-verbal methods is the most efficient way to do this.
Additionally, a key element is to clear your mind while you listen and don’t spend any time thinking of what you are going to say next. Turn your mind into a blank slate that has no thoughts. When you have this blank-slate approach, you are fully present with that person, and they can tell you’re actively listening, including eye contact. Don’t worry, when it’s your turn to talk, you’ll be able to think of what to say in response or you’ll simply stream-of-consciousness something and it’ll most likely work out just as well. Trust the process and don’t think ahead of what to say while you should be listening. I can’t emphasize this point enough.
If all else fails, and you simply cannot make yourself maintain eye contact with the other person, cut your losses and look down the entire conversation, as long as you are actively listening and using fillers (more on that below). This is actually pretty effective in networking conversations because it is often so loud at networking happy hours and events that it looks like you’re simply trying to have your ear face them to hear better. However, the goal is to work your way up to being comfortable maintaining eye contact with anyone.
Conversational fillers are the small phrases and sounds of acknowledgment peppered throughout a conversation that let the other person know you’re still paying attention. Examples include, “Uh-huh,” “mm-hmm,” “right,” “OK,” and others. Most people use these; you should too. The great thing about them is that active listening—intense concentration on what the other person is saying—will cause you to automatically know when a filler is needed. You will have a gut feeling, and at first you may consciously need to think to yourself, “There’s that feeling…quick, say ‘uh-huh’!” But as you improve, it will become habit and you won’t have to think about it. You will just use a filler reflexively.
A word of advice: Alternate your fillers every couple of uses. Don’t use “uh-huh” six times in a row, or you will sound like a robot. Throw in some other fillers. When you are on the receiving end of fillers—for example, telling a story—notice how good you feel when the other person periodically uses a filler. It tells you they’re still interested in what you have to say. If they don’t use them, you feel like they’re not really listening. These are the same reactions people will have toward you depending on whether or not you use fillers.
Below is a fictitious example of how to use fillers:
PETE: So the other day I was in the checkout line at Whole Foods and this guy behind me starts talking about how he had someone come out to look at his roof…
PETE: …and he said the guy gets there, sets up the ladder, climbs up onto the roof, and he’s barely up there for two minutes before he comes down and takes down the ladder…
PETE: and he said the guy goes right up to him and says it’s going to cost almost twice what he quoted him earlier that same day to do the work. I mean, he didn’t literally say “twice”, but the amount he quoted was basically double what he originally said.
PETE: So then he said they got into this huge argument and his wife came out and had to essentially break them up and the contractor cussed him out and he was totally shocked.
ME: Oh snap!
PETE: And that contractor had been recommended by a friend. Soooo he said it’s back to online reviews to find someone else for the roof.
ME: Ha ha ha…yup.
Whenever anyone tells a story, it’s pretty much inevitable that fillers can and should be used by someone in the audience. Maybe if it’s a group conversation and there is a total social butterfly present, you can sit back and let that person do all the fillers. But if you are the main audience, be sure to use fillers. Like I said, the more you practice, you will begin using them without realizing it.
So to review: Active listening is like a laser beam of concentration, so point it at the target; maintain eye contact by wiping your mind of thoughts and being a blank slate so you can hang on their every word; and use conversational fillers until they’re natural because they let the other person know you’re still listening.