Conversation Starters…and Stoppers
Festivities with friends are part of the holiday magic. And, as we chat at the buffet table, those same gatherings can offer a chance to connect with new acquaintances.
Many of us consider ourselves good listeners. We look up from our phones, nod our heads, offer appropriate responses. However, there’s much more to being a good listener, according to research published in The Harvard Business Review. In What Great Listeners Actually Do, the authors crunched data from a survey of almost 3,500 executives, discerning the differences between great and average listeners.
“We suspect that in being a good listener, most of us are more likely to stop short rather than go too far,” wrote John H. Zenger and Joseph Folkman, Ph.D. of Zeng
er Folkman, an executive coaching firm.
Consider their report a mini-lesson in “Advanced Listening 101,” with four key takeaways:
- Good listening is a two-way street. “People perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight.”
- Good listening requires empathy: It’s “characterized by the creation of a safe environment in which issues and differences could be discussed openly.”
- Good listening is mutually supportive: While we can disagree with what a person is saying she also wants to feel that we are “trying to help, not wanting to win an argument.”
- Good listeners tended to make suggestions. But how we offer them—the tone and spirit—is also important.
Being a good conversationalist sometimes requires firing on all pistons. That was the gist of the advice from NPR’s “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross in a New York Times article. Ms. Gross has interviewed thousands of people from every walk of life on her show. In How To Talk to People, Ms. Gross offered a number of suggestions, which not surprisingly, are similar to those we tell our journalism students. Among her conversation tips:
- Ask “tell me about yourself”: This incorporates two key conversation techniques. First, it’s an open-ended question that requires a response of at least a sentence or two. Also, people usually like to talk about themselves!
- Curiosity: This ties into the same point as Harvard Business Review article, which means listening with genuine interest and then responding with enthusiasm or empathy.
- Body language: Sometimes even good friends get bored and want to move on. Look for the classic signs of distraction, fidgeting, or checking the phone. “Try to pick up on when you’ve kind of lost somebody’s attention,” Ms. Gross told the New York Times.
Sometimes the social obligations become too much and all we want is a weekend to ourselves, whether that means binging on Netflix or biking a trail.
In How to Say No to Anyone Even a Good Friend, communications expert Alexandra Franzen offers some strategies for gracefully extracting ourselves from all sorts of situations. Three tips:
- Say it Fast: Respond right away. Usually it’s easier to say “no” upfront rather than delay and have it hanging over you.
- Explain Why—Briefly: “But don’t over-explain or give your entire life story,” Franzen writes.
- Propose Something Else: She suggests coming up with a counter offer of something you can do “because it is easier, less complicated, or less time-consuming.”
In her online workbook on saying no—for a myriad of situations—Franzen offers a number of scripts on how to politely refuse requests for advice, money and social events.
Enjoy the holiday season! –Mary W. Quigley
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