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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:

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.

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:

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.