March 21, 2016

Good Conversation Means Good Listening

As a psychologist who treats socially anxious patients with CBT, one of the behavioral skills I put in the treatment plan is meeting new people.  Or, getting closer to someone we kind of know but don't know well enough to invite for an outing.  How do we go from meeting someone new at a BBQ or from a conversation at the copy machine or from chatting on Google hangouts to the point where we can call that person a friend?

In a word: conversation.  Or more accurately, listening, according to Celeste Headlee in her TED Talk: 10 ways to have a better conversation.

Don't have the time to watch her 12 minute talk?  You can read her full transcript, here.

Or, in an even bigger hurry?  I've listed her ten rules of thumb for better conversation below:

1. Attend.  Give your full attention.  Don't multitask.  Look in their eyes, not at your watch or that cute boy who walked by.  And absolutely, do not glance at your cell phone.  If your text notification goes off?  Unless it's from your mother's surgeon, ignore.  Better yet, say excuse me while I mute this.  I want to hear what you're saying.   

2. Set yourself aside, in the words of Road Less Traveled author Dr. Scott PeckDon't pontificate. Don't lecture. Refrain from sharing your opinion (no matter how well researched it is).  Assume you have something to learn. In Celeste's words, Everyone is an expert in something.

3. Use open-ended questions, like journalists do.  Start your questions with Who, What, When, Where, Why or How. (Here I will violate Rule #2 and interject my well researched opinion:  skip the Why questions:  They tend to sound accusing or judgmental.)  Try asking your new acquaintance, "What was that like?" "How did that feel?" "So what did you think at that point?"  "How did you know to do that?"

4. Go with the flow. When an opinion or reply comes into your mind, ignore and listen for a little bit longer. Stay focused on their story.

5. If you don't know, say that you don't know. We all like to be the expert on something.  And so does the person you are trying to friend.

6. Assume their story is unique.  Because it is.  How they felt when their favorite sports team won the tournament is not the same as how you felt when your team won. In Celeste's words,  Don't equate your experience with theirs.

7. Try not to repeat yourself. Don't be boring. Resist the impulse to say, for the third time, that witty remark you made to your cubicle neighbor.

8. Keep to the basic plot of your story.  Stay out of the weeds. You don't need to remember the specific dates, names, street names of that excellent Taco house you like to visit.  Your listener cares about you and how you felt.

9.  Listen. As Epictetus said, “We have two ears and one mouth." Use them accordingly. Who is Epictetus?  It doesn't matter. (Refer to Rule #8).

10. Be brief.

And with that?  I will briefly end this post.

Sandy Andrews, PhD  is a Clinical Psychologist / Therapist who provides CBT in Austin, Texas  

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