Listen, Don’t Talk

I firmly believe that life sometimes coalesces to teach you a lesson. Events, conversations, introductions and lessons all converge on one theme that you never really expected. This week, I’m having one of those moments of synergy.

And the universe is reminding me to shut the hell up.

One of the things I teach my students at UC is that sales is a conversation, and that they have two ears and one mouth and they should use them in that proportion. (Technically, Epictetus originated that theory, but I’m much more fun at parties, so you should listen to me.) And the past week, I’ve received several reminders of that.

In internal meetings, a colleague of mine has dominated the conversation, talked over people and literally finished my sentences for me. And not in a cutesy, we’re so in sync and I couldn’t remember a word so you remembered it for me kind of way. She did it in an even though you are still talking and it’s obviously not my turn to open my yap, I’m going to try to guess the words coming out of your mouth and say them at the same time as you.

Then, at dinner with a friend the other night, my significant other and I sat there and nodded smilingly for most of the meal while she did all the talking. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the opportunity to finish my meal without having to talk with my mouth full or watch my food cool in front of me, but there’s a limit to the number of times I’ll open my mouth to reply or comment, only to have to close it again when it’s obvious the other person is not going to stop talking. I was painfully bored and disengaged.

In situations like this, I firmly believe the offending party isn’t TRYING to dominate the conversation. They don’t actively want to piss off everyone in the room with them, leading them to fantasize about physical violence or acute, immediate-onset laryngitis. But they lack a certain level of self-awareness that arrives when you’ve been talking non-stop for three hours and whispers in your ear “maybe these other people would like to talk.”

I worry about being that person. I’m a talker. And I’m passionate about a lot of things, and when I’m passionate about something AND I’m all wound up, my mouth can get on a roll. But, to my defense, I also like to ask questions. My background as a newspaper reporter helps with that – the one thing I miss about being a reporter (and no, it wasn’t the pitifully low pay or the inevitable drinking problem) was that I got to ask people lots of questions, all the time. I’m naturally curious and I love to find out things. All things. Well, not gross medical stuff. But all other things.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve challenged myself to listen more and talk less. It’s not easy. But I don’t ever want people to feel like I did this week in those meetings or that dinner. I felt like it didn’t actually matter if I were there. A cardboard cutout of me would have sufficed, because my companions didn’t want a conversation, they wanted an audience. And unfortunately, the show wasn’t very interesting.

So I would challenge you to take this approach. The next time you are in a conversation with anyone – friend, lover, colleague, child – try to spend 75% of the time listening and only 25% of the time talking. Turn the conversation to the other person. Ask good questions. Be curious about them and who they are and what they want. If they ask you questions, answer them, but don’t dominate the conversation. And see how happy being acknowledged, listened to and truly heard makes them feel.


by Lacy Starling, President and Fearless Leader