Listening is not about simply holding your peace while someone else holds forth. Quite the opposite. A lot of listening has to do with how you respond – the degree to which you elicit clear expression of another’s thoughts and, in the process, crystallise your own. It starts with an openness and willingness to truly follow another person’s story without presumption or getting sidetracked by what’s going on in your own head. This can be a problem for smart people whose galloping thoughts may race ahead of the speaker’s words, often in the wrong direction. People with higher IQs also tend to be more neurotic and self-conscious, which means worry and anxiety may hijack their attention.
Good listeners ask good questions. One of the most valuable lessons I learned as a journalist is that everyone is interesting if you ask the right questions. If someone seems dull or uninteresting, it’s on you. Good questions don’t have a hidden agenda of fixing, saving, advising, convincing or correcting. They don’t begin with “Don’t you think…?” or “Wouldn’t you agree…?” and they definitely don’t end with “Right?” The idea is to explore the speaker’s point of view, not to sway it.
Also avoid asking appraising questions like “What do you do for a living?” and “What part of town do you live in?” and “Are you married?” These are not honest attempts to get to know people so much as rank them in the social hierarchy. It makes people reflexively defensive and is likely to reduce the conversation to a self-promoting elevator pitch or CV recitation. The kinds of conversations that make you long for the company of your dog.
I’ve learned everyone is interesting if you ask the right questions
Instead, ask about their interests. Try to find out what excites or annoys them – their simple pleasures and what keeps them up at night. Ask expansive questions such as, “What’s the best gift you ever received?” and “If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you live?” Listening to people in this way is also how to bridge differences and find common ground. Once you find out someone has struggled with an illness, cannot resist chocolate, hums Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody when nervous, or has a room in their house dedicated to their yo-yo collection, it’s hard to reduce them to a political position or ideological stance.
You might not agree with them, but you gain understanding about their background and influences, which is essential to reaching compromise, or, at the very least, maintaining a peaceful coexistence. Moreover, listening to others makes it more likely that they will listen to you. This is in part because it’s human nature to return courtesies, but also because you learn people’s values and motivations. With this you’ll be better able to craft a message that resonates.