Listening Skills and Conversations title graphic When I joined Toastmasters to improve my public speaking, their emphasis on listening skills surprised me. It shouldn’t have. Listening, as opposed to simply hearing, is the key to effective communications.

Good listening skills facilitate meaningful conversations. The two of them together are indispensable when it comes to collecting stories.

 Listening skills and conversation keys to stories

Listening Skills help You Understand Stories

Simple conversations can bring an understanding of another culture alive. I had one such conversation years ago as my family drove through the Four Corners area of the US West.  When we saw a sign advertising dinosaur tracks, we turned in to investigate.  A Navajo guide met us and showed us the dinosaur tracks and much, much, more. Luckily, my curiosity overcame my natural distractibility. I listened has he explained where he lived. He pointed in the distance, identifying landmarks, not roads. The route number or state name was insignificant. The buttes, mesas, and mountains weren’t. His nation had very different demarcations than ours.

He showed us a square indention in the rock where “white men” had cut out dinosaur prints to put in a museum. The scar in the ground still rankled, but not due to theft. It was the logic that escaped him. Wouldn’t people prefer a walk in nature to see the prints than parking a car and go into a museum with limited hours?

Ten minutes of one-on-one conversation helped me understand the man before me. Because I listened, I gain a tad of insight into his culture.  (Before I choke on my halo, I should also mention that it’s quite possible that after hours in the car my brain was so saturated by Veggie Tale’s Silly Songs that adult conversation was a salve.)

How many times do we have the opportunity to take those 10 minutes and fail to do so. I’m sure I’ve passed up way too many.

Listening Paves the Way to Meaningful Conversations

Sometimes anonymity provides a comfort level that allows us to drop our defenses. This was the case recently outside of my favorite coffee shop. As my friends and I we left, we saw two beautifully dressed young women attempting to take a selfie. Volunteering to take it for them we learned they were celebrating Eid, the end of Ramadan. A few minutes of honest conversation educated us, starting with our efforts to pronounce Eid.

“How should a non-Muslim should greet a Muslim on Eid?” I asked. “Is ‘Happy Eid’ appropriate?”

They giggled. “Yes, that’s fine.” The giggle implied that perhaps there could be a better phraseology, but they explained. “You’re reaching out to understand our culture. Any way you greet us, acknowledging our faith and our celebration is enough.”

Perhaps that’s why around the holidays, Story Corps celebrates a National Day of Listening instead of a National Day of Storytelling.  It all starts withe the listening skills.

Listening Skills and Conversations with Loved Ones

If good listening skills can connect us with strangers, think what they can do with family members.  But those same listening skills might be harder with those we love.’s Listening Skills article explains some of the barriers to good listening skills:

For example, one common problem is that instead of listening closely to what someone is saying, we often get distracted after a sentence or two, and instead start to think about what we are going to say in reply. This means that we do not listen to the rest of the speaker’s message.

We may also get distracted by the speaker’s appearance, or by what someone else is saying, which sounds more interesting.

These issues not only affect you, but you are likely to show your lack of attention in your body language.

What’s striking about those barriers is that they’re more likely to crop up when we’re familiar with the person who’s speaking. We notice that grandma has a spot on her shirt and wonder if someone is helping her with the wash. That grandpa now has a lot of hairs growing out of his ears. That our son missed a spot when shaving. That our spouse is going down the same path that we’ve heard before. We want to avoid a potential political rant. We become unfocused.

Worse, the conversation becomes more about the thoughts in our heads than the memories in theirs.

Perhaps we have to try harder to be good listeners with those we love (or see often).

I wonder if I would have felt as free to ask questions if the two Muslim women had been co-workers. Perhaps my thoughts would have been so occupied with “What will they think of me?” and “Should I know this already?” that I wouldn’t have asked questions.

Your Turn:

When have good listening skills led you to a story you would have otherwise never heard?

Can’t think of one? Try it the next time you interview a family member about their past.  Let go of your agenda of questions to ask and be present in the moment. See if a different story emerges.

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