I have always considered myself a great conversationalist. I used to think of conversations like tennis matches; one-person hits a shot, the other one hits one back. It goes on and on until eventually it stops. Then, the players get back on the line and start another point. To me, points were like conversation topics and the players hitting the balls were like each respective conversationalist stating his or her story, thoughts, and/or opinions. My happiest and most fulfilling moments have been in deep conversations like these, so I was shocked to learn I was doing it all wrong.

One of my most important wake-up calls occurred during my first coaching course. I learned that there are three levels of listening and that most people function on level one listening. This means that they are listening to the sound of their own inner voice; they may hear the words of the other person, but they are mainly aware of their own opinions, stories, feelings, and needs. Coaching has opened my world to how to truly listen to people.

Below are three valuable takeaways:

  1. Don’t relate it back to you. I used to think of this as a way of empathizing, but it’s not. It is the ego getting in the way and making the story about you, which it is not. Celeste Headlee brilliantly discusses this in her TED Talk: honor the notion that “all experiences are individual.” One of my favorite lines from her talk is that true listening “requires setting aside oneself.” Set aside the voice that says, “me too.”

  2. Be genuinely curious. Ask open-ended questions that start with “what,” “how,” “where,” “who”, and “why.” Neuroscience shows that when you ask an insightful question, the entire brain activates as it reflects, and releases serotonin that enables relaxation. This process boosts intelligence from all parts of the brain, inspiring new neuronal connections, and allowing for more understanding than what would have happened if you provided a solution or continued talking. By asking discerning questions, you may facilitate a new discovery in the person with whom you’re speaking.

  3. Know that we all just want to be heard. I’ve been in countless conversations where I’ve fundamentally disagreed with the other person’s opinions or have been irritated by his or her arrogance or ignorance. While it’s hard to practice in the moment, it’s important to know that underneath the barriers and guards, everyone has a story and just wants to be seen and validated. Have an open mind and an open heart. As William Ury sagely states: “when you listen to someone, it’s the most profound act of human respect.”

Next time you are engaged in conversation at a party, meeting, or coffee date, try to practice these lessons of listening. You may walk away feeling extra energized and maybe even learned something.

Sources: “10 ways to have a better conversation,” TED Ideas Worth Spreading, February 16, 2016, https://www.ted.com/talks/celeste_headlee_10_ways_to_have_a_better_conversation/transcript; Asmus, Mary Jo, “The neuroscience of asking insightful questions,” Aspire Collaborative Services LLC, 2017, http://www.aspire-cs.com/neuroscience-asking-insightful-questions/; The Coaches Training Institute, www.coactive.com, 2017.

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