December 4, 2015

Distinguish Yourself: Listen

By: Roger Custer

chalk1Every day, we have conversations with those around us in our business and personal lives. Whether on the phone or in person, conversations are the best way to get things accomplished. You can distinguish yourself by making it a habit to actively listen. Here are some quick tips, loosely based on Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

1. Ask questions. In the conversation, think of some questions to ask the other person. People love to talk about themselves and answer your questions. Ask them follow-up questions about what they say and think about open-ended or unusual questions to ask. For example, the weather is always a go-to question, but you can spice up the conversation more by asking about pop culture, music, sports, or the person’s hometown. I’d much rather talk to you about my tastes in music than the weather!

2. Speak 25-50% of the time. Strive to speak less than the other person by asking questions and giving concise answers that end in questions for the other person. (Something like this: “I work as a policy scholar at X Organization. What policy areas interest you the most?”) You may perceive the conversation as the other person talking too much, but almost always the other person is enjoying it and will remember the conversation better than if you talked 50-75% of the time.

3. Have a humble, learning attitude. Why are you in this conversation? Are you truly interested in what the other person is saying with an attitude that you can learn from him or her? Some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had were unexpected because the initial judgment of the person’s knowledge and background was totally wrong. You can always learn something.

4. Repeat the other person’s themes. In some situations, you can repeat what the other person has said or emphasize the same themes he or she likes. For example, the other person is probably not interested in what you want to discuss, so listen and go the direction that person wants. Embrace awkward situations and continue asking questions to move the conversation along. Have a few back-ups ready to go so there is not a lull. For example, if the person mentions she has to pick up her kids after the event, ask how many kids and their names.

5. Practice your elevator speech. You have to speak during the conversation and will be asked questions, too. Have an elevator speech ready when asked the most common questions. “What do you do?” “What is your background?” “Where are you from?” “What policy areas interest you most?” “What do you do in your free time?” Give quick, practiced answers so you can move to ask the other person and continue to listen.

No one likes a gabby person or “that guy” who dominates the conversation and always has to make a point.


Roger Custer is executive director of America’s Future Foundation.