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Active Listening

Over the past couple of years, I've learned a lot about active listening. I'm still not very good at doing it, but I have definitely gotten better over time. Part of the improvements were developed from Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People and partly through a few people I've met over the course of the past couple of years who live out what active listening is. Because it is such a difficult thing to learn for adults who aren't used to it, I'm especially thankful to those people for showing me how it's done!

Recently, I heard someone describe active listening as, "pretending to be interested in what someone is talking about until you don't have to pretend anymore." Considering the words of Carnegie, that came across as a very concise description. Whether you're networking for your job in order to advance or for marketing, or you just want to learn how to feel more competent in social gatherings, active listening is a great place to start.

The means of active listening is to pay close attention to what the other person is saying, to encourage someone to talk about something they're interested in, and then to ask questions for more information. In the age of the mobile phone and internet, wherein we find ourselves constantly seeking entertainment for our short attention spans, it takes practice to learn to engage someone in conversation about something they are interested in, especially when we are not also interested in that subject. In his book, Carnegie quotes the former Harvard president that "Exclusive attention to the person who is speaking to you is very important. Nothing else is so flattering as that."

Another way by which the internet has made conversations such as this more difficult is that most of us feel ourselves to be a kind of internet expert on some subject or another, and if the conversation wanders in that direction, we are apt to bore or frustrate the other person with explanations of our perceptions or knowledge. We fail to realize that a conversation is not a competition for who knows more facts or can best present data and build an argument.

Another observation I have recently made is the tendency to jump into what may be considered highly personal territory by means of asking well-meaning questions. Frequently, it is not considered by the asker that these areas may be uncomfortable for the other person to talk about. It seems that with the destruction of the societal taboo, we are now presented with individual taboos by which we must proceed with care by paying attention to the other person's reactions to our questions should we enter into personal territory whereby the other person is uncomfortable. Personally, I have found myself on both ends of that type of conversation. Some things that I do not regard as an uncomfortable or as a private and personal topic, others do, and vice versa. The best resolution is to keep things in the realm of what the other person wants to talk about regarding themselves, and don't stray too far from that.

Over the next week, pay attention to your conversations with other people. What subjects do they bring up? Ask them questions to dive deeper into that discussion and allow them to be the center of attention in that conversation. At the end of the conversation, ask yourself what you learned about the topic discussed. How did they react to your interest in the topic they chose?

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