Listening And Being Interested In People Isn't A Conversation Cure-All
A piece of conversational advice I've heard countless times is to be interested in others, be a good listener, ask people about things they want to talk about, and let them do most of the speaking. The idea is that everyone appreciates a person who is interested in them more than someone who tries to be interesting themselves. It's right out of How to Win Friends & Influence People. While I think this is one good possible approach for making conversation, and a part of being likable overall, it's not a magic, one-size-fits-all solution.
I think my main concern with it comes from an exchange I've seen several times on message boards. Someone will write a post saying they're shy and often struggle to make conversation with people. Several forum members will respond with, "Just be interested in people and be a good listener. Get them talking." And here I always get the sense that this answer is more a reflexive, default response than anything. Then the original poster will say something like, "Really? So to be good at talking to people you just have to listen to them?!" I always get the sense they're thrilled to have learned a possible conversational cheat code. They don't have to talk at all! They just have to listen, occasionally ask a follow-up question, and they're off the hook. They get to seem like a great, personable conversationalist without having to do anything!
I say this piece of advice isn't an all-purpose cure for the following reasons:
It doesn't apply to all situations
The 'listen and take an interest' approach works best in a setting where you can talk to someone one-on-one and for a longer amount of time. That doesn't apply to all conversations though:
- In particular this advice breaks often down in livelier group discussions. If you try to sit back and listen in them you'll mainly come off as quiet and not contributing. The conversation will also have too much of a life of its own for you to question one person on their interests. Someone else will pick up the ball and change the topic before long.
- It's also not a great approach if you run into someone quickly and need to exchange a few words before you both take off.
Not everyone wants to do most of the speaking or talk about themselves or their interests
This advice assumes that most people love nothing more than to go on about their hobbies, or the latest trip they took, or whatnot. Not everyone is like this.
- Lots of people just don't want to do most of the talking in a conversation, or have it focused mainly on them. They prefer more of a balanced back and forth.
- Some people just aren't very chatty or expressive in general. If you ask them questions about themselves you're more likely to get a sparse, dead end reply than have them launch into a speech about their passions.
- Sometimes people are just in a mood where they don't really feel like talking about themselves or their interests. Someone could have a really fascinating career or hobby, but find it tiresome to discuss. Maybe they've explained it to other people too many times, or they live and breathe it so much day to day that they don't feel any need to speak about it during their downtime.
- A person may be approaching the conversation hoping to meet someone else who's interesting themselves. Maybe someone who speaks to you is hoping you'll be intriguing and entertaining and talk their ear off.
- Some people feel uncomfortable talking about themselves too much. They could be self-conscious, think they're boring, or start to feel interrogated when someone tries to ask about them.
- Someone may be following a variation of this advice too, or have grown up being told it's rude to go on about themselves too much.
- A person may not be a great conversationalist and have a hard time being expected to carry most of the weight.
People don't always appreciate a good listener or someone who's interested in them
This advice also assumes that people find someone who's a good listener, or who's sincerely interested in them, as this rare, special treasure. In my experience that's not always the case either:
- There are situations where someone may 'use' your listening or interest, but that won't translate to them really liking you on the whole. For example, if someone is having a problem in their lives they may appreciate having a person to vent to. That doesn't necessarily mean they want to be buddies. You may have just been the first person they came across who was willing to let them talk about that stuff. Another example may be someone who wants to monopolize the conversation and doesn't really care who the target is. They just want to go on about how great they are or rant about their opinions. As soon as you drop your listener role they'll move on to someone else.
- For some people a conversation partner who's a good listener doesn't carry a ton of value for them. Instead they're drawn to other things like someone's ability to come up with funny jokes or tell good stories. For example, imagine a stereotypical party animal frat guy. Listening skills probably aren't the top attribute he's looking for in a friend.
- Not everyone will automatically love you for being interested in them either. Say you met someone and you felt right away that you didn't click with them. You wouldn't really care if they seemed like they wanted to hear all about your trip to China. In fact in some circumstances you may even feel bothered or put off by it, or wonder if they were trying to suck up to you.
In all of these cases being a good listener can artificially prolong an interaction that ultimately isn't going to go anywhere for you.
Sometimes we don't want to want to take on the listening, interested role
Sometimes we have our own stuff we want speak about and share with others. Within reason that's totally fine. Sometimes we don't really feel like doing all the listening. Sometimes we don't really care about the subject the other person really wants to discuss. Yeah, we may win some points by letting them talk about it, but how far are we willing to go if we ultimately think it's boring and we're not getting a whole lot out of the interaction?
It's not always easy to take an interest in and discuss certain topics
When you hope to engage someone by talking about their hobbies, it's not always as simple as just asking a few questions and then sitting back as they talk at you. Sometimes you need a passing knowledge of the topic yourself to be able to ask good questions and create an engaging conversation for the other person. For example, say you meet someone who's really into the technical side of cars and racing. You may not have the faintest idea about what to say to have a discussion about that topic. You could always try picking their brain about the basics of the hobby and why they like it, but they may not want to talk about it at a level where they have to explain the fundamentals to a beginner. They'd prefer to get into nitty gritty details with someone who knows as much as they do.
Occasionally the 'be more of a listener' advice can create the wrong mindset
I've noticed sometimes people take the Be A Good Listener concept and apply it with the mindset of, "There's nothing that worthwhile or interesting about me. The only way I'll be able to get anyone to like me is if I first 'give' them what they want in a conversation, someone who hangs on their every word." Taking an interest in people becomes something they feel they have to do, rather than one option they can use if they think it would help create an enjoyable interaction.
Taken too far it can lead to conversations that technically last a while, but which are one-sided and unsatisfying
After applying this advice for a bit people sometimes ask, "I find it easier to talk to people now, but I often have conversations where I do all the listening, and the other person doesn't ask me anything about myself." They're frustrated because they're staying in interactions longer than they used to be able to, but don't feel any closer to meeting their goals of making more friends or whatnot.
There are a few reasons this can happen: Like I said, this approach can attract people who will 'take' your listening, but not necessarily like you more overall. Depending on how thoroughly and methodically you ask people about themselves, it can not give them much of a chance to ask about you. You may also be setting a frame that the conversation is all about them and you don't need to be asked about yourself. Finally, you may be so focused on following the method and not appearing self-absorbed that you purposely don't add things about yourself into the discussion, ones that may move the attention onto you (e.g., "Oh cool, I went to Greece too!")
If you're finding yourself in these lopsided interactions, the solution is to start adding in more personal statements. Share your own relevant experiences and opinions. Make it more of a regular back-and-forth exchange than a one-sided interview. If the other person doesn't seem interested in what you have to say, that can sting, but at least you'll know where you stand.