Home
A few of you wondered what I meant by active listening in the context of a conversation. Maybe you want to be a good listener without being bored out of your frickin' skull. I'll tell you how.

The worst kind of listener is the topic hijacker. Let's say you enjoy snowboarding and you're listening to a neighbor describe his new gas grille. Don't do this move:

Neighbor: My wife got me a new grille for my birthday.

You: Really? I got a new snowboard. Let me tell you about it...

That's just being a jerk. Active listening, as I choose to define it, involves asking questions to steer the conversation in an entertaining direction without being too obvious about it. Using my example, let's say you have no interest in hearing about the wonders of barbecuing, but you don't want to be a blatant conversation hijacker. You might steer the conversation thusly.

Neighbor: My wife got me a new grille for my birthday.

You: Does that mean you do most of the cooking now?

Neighbor: Ha ha! Yes, I think it was a trick.

You: If you do the cooking, who does the dishes?

Neighbor: Well, usually the one who doesn't cook does the dishes.

You: Do you enjoy cooking?

Neighbor: Not really.

You: Your wife does. So you're getting screwed when she does the cooking and you do the dishes because she enjoys her end of it.

Okay, maybe in this example the conversation will lead to your neighbor getting a divorce. As a general rule, the more dangerous or inappropriate the conversation, the more interesting it is. You'll have to use your judgment to know when you've crossed the line.

Also as a general rule, conversations about how people have or will interact are interesting, and conversations about objects are dull. So steer toward topics that involve human perceptions and feelings, and away from objects and things.

You also want to avoid any topic that falls into the "you had to be there" category. For example, if someone is describing a vacation, avoid asking about the food. Nothing is more boring than a description of food. Ask instead if the person answered email from the beach. That gets to how a person thinks, and how hard it is to release a habit. And it could provide an escape route to move the conversation to yet another place. Sometimes it takes two or three bounces to get someplace of mutual interest.

You've heard of the Kevin Bacon game, where every actor is just a few connections away from Kevin Bacon. Likewise, you almost always have something interesting in common with every other person. The trick is to find it. As with the Kevin Bacon game, you'd be surprised at how few questions it takes to get there.

When I was doing a lot of travel for book tours and speaking, I spent many hours with cab and limo drivers. I discovered two questions that would almost always lead to something interesting:
  1. Where did you grow up?
  2. Have you driven anyone famous?
I heard amazing stories of political exile, rock star antics, and war. It was great stuff. Most people have at least one good story in them. And you can usually find that story by asking where the person lived and what their parents did for a living.

Watch how this works. If you leave a comment, mention where you grew up, and what your parents did for a living. Notice from the other comments how often at least one of those things is interesting or has a connection to something you care about.

 
Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +135
  • Print
  • Share
  • Share:

Comments

Sort By:
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 30, 2010
My neighborhood woke up a couple of years ago. Our dead end street is like one big family. What would happen on my street would go more like:

Neighbor: My wife got me a new grille for my birthday.

Me: Gas or charcoal?

Neighbor: Gas.

Me: I'll go grab some meat and wine!

Neighbor: I'll fire it up!

Me: See you in a few!

I grew up in Los Angeles. My dad worked for CP Rail in Victoria, BC before moving us to L.A. where he worked as a CPA for almost 40 years! My mom was a mom... toughest job out there.
 
 
Jul 29, 2010
Really Helping. Thanks for post!


Chirag
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 27, 2010
Ok.

My Dad is a farmer from Creston, BC. He worked for CP Rail when he was younger, and then for the department of highways as a bridge builder. When he was around 35 (when I was born), he purchased the farm that he grew up on from my Grandfather, and helped to build my Grandma a home in town. he still lives there now, and has farmed it all his life. He's 72, and still has a six-pack... (on his stomach).

My Mom grew up in Creston, was born there as well. She was a housewife for many years, and for the first 7 years of my life. She worked in a Deli called "Maggie's" that had fantastic pepperoni and French fries (sorry, it's true!). I can remember going there when I was in grade three to get a plate of fries smothered in gravy... to which I would add hoards of Ketchup. She then became a hairdresser for a few decades, opened her own shop in Vernon, and eventually stopped and started working for a place in Vernon that makes electronics for underground heating.

As to where I grew up: I was born in Creston Valley Hospital, I lived there for 7-8 years, my parents divorced, I then moved to ColdStream, Armstrong, Grindrod, Vernon, Grindron, Vernon, Vancouver, and now currently reside in Parksville... all in BC, Canada.

Asking me this question makes me realize I don't know much about my parents before I was born. I'll have to rectify that.
 
 
Jul 26, 2010
Very cool idea; I need to try this out.

As for me: raised in Calumet City, Illinois, home of the Blues Brothers, though the orphanage in the movie didn't actually exist. (The "Penguin" was quite realistic though, similar to the nuns at the parochial grammar school I attended there.) The chase scene through the shopping mall was filmed in nearby Harvey, IL and had been empty for several years before they filmed there. Calumet City was also referenced in the movie "Silence of the Lambs" where the FBI thought Hannibal Lector was hiding out. They were mistaken, but did catch another deviate there anyway.

Mom sold mens clothes at Carson Pirie Scott department store and Dad was a shipper for Rand McNally (mapmaker to the world), both in Hammond, Indiana. Dad did meet Andrew McNally a few times while employed there. A literary note: Hammond was thinly disguised as Hohman (the name of the main street in the city) in the Gene Shephard book "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash" and the movie "The Christmas Story" where Ralphie pined for a Red Ryder B-B gun.
 
 
Jul 26, 2010
This is why I read you blog, Mr. Adams. You challenge me, not with your sometimes amusing conspiracy theories but with ways to improve my friendships with people.

I grew up in Phoenix, AZ, which is full of desert. I didn't have a TV, so many of my childhood memories are of romps through the desert and messing with weird insects instead of TV shows.

My dad is a cab driver so he has plenty of stories like the ones you likely heard from other cabbies. A couple of years ago he met an Iranian diplomat and told him how to handle it if they caught any American spies, which is exactly what they did. They treated them nicely and released them, giving them a lot of gifts to show that Iran isn't a bad country. No way to tell if they took my dad's advice or not, but maybe.

 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 25, 2010
Interesting, I'll play.

I was raised in a small country town in Australia called Tocumwal. Some readers here may know that the USAF had a massive air base there during WWII. When my Dad finished school he got a job in a bank for a while but hated it so he went working as a rural labourer, odd jobs. Ended up working for the local irrigation authority as a channel attendant managing water flow to different farms.
Mum left school at 14, worked in retail then bought a Milk Bar which she ran for years. After selling that she also worked at the local post office as a cleaner and behind the counter.
I moved to the city and became a HR Manager (boo!!)
 
 
Jul 25, 2010
My dad was an engineer - got his degree just as the Great Depression of '29 began, and ended up for a time selling paint door to door! My mom was an English major in college but married my dad before she graduated and remained degree-free the rest of her life. My parents had a bad habit of moving every two years or so - making it difficult for me to put sown social roots at the schools in Texas I attended.

My first exposure to active listening was a class in grad school, then again in a church program for young parents. When I'm not being lazy I enjoy using the technique to jazz up otherwise dull conversations. Thanks for reminding me why I do it!! ;-)
 
 
Jul 24, 2010

Dear folks,

My name is Elizabeth and I am a writer of sorts. You can vouch for me
at associatedcontent.com. I"m also an environmental activist, true blue or green!
My new radio show is called Green Mother Earth at U-stream. Hope you can join
us soon on our show and learn a few lessons on being green, truly green!

It's called having the guts to say what you want people to hear!
You know, the kind of language that makes someone's ears perks up! I plan on a
series of shows to elevate one's subconscious, so that you can become that
person, not shy, say what she or he means, without violence, of course,
and gets the word around! We need to stop this War! It's too costly, it's
ruining our country, and we need to hold back the gas oil drillers from ruining
our water and air! Go read Damascus Citizens for Sustainablity.org and listen to

Josh Fox producer of the most startling documentary ever made in this decade!
It's a must see: "Gaslands". See people drinking water catch on fire from the methane
gas coming into their homes in Pennsylvania. Your state maybe next! Let's hope not,
but gas companies are shrewd and they lie and steal from people to get their gas.
Plus they are polluting our watershed and rivers! They are definitely not looking out
for you interests! Google: Gas Drilling: Is an environmental disaster looming? Read,
Read, Read than donate or spread the word fast! We must stop them somehow or
slow them down. They leased over 1 million state games lands for drilling in PA
and our Governor Rendell let them! No conscience! Absolutely horrible! Write to your
Congressman to make it against the law to inject harmful chemicals in our ground water!
It takes 600 truck loads of clean cold water to make and complete one well head!

Where are they getting their clean water? Possibly from your well!! Read my article!
thanks

Have a nice week all of you!

Elizabeth Grieco
Environmental & Social Activist!


 
 
Jul 24, 2010
"people are interesting, objects are dull" - now I know why I (male) prefer to be in conversations groups with the females at parties.
Look at any family gathering or social event - the girls get straight into talking about relationships, and other people. The blokes will talk about geography - 'did you come by the new bypass, or through the town, I took the shortcut' Then they get onto cars, DIY, and sports.
So it isn't just due to me having my brain in my trousers - women really do have more interesting conversations.
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 24, 2010
Hi Scott,

I am going to hijack this thread and ask about the new animated movie Despicable Me! I couldn't help but notice that the Bank of Evil (formally Lehman Brothers) is run by a character who looks suspiciously like the pointy-haired boss. Was this an homage, outright theft or did they run it by you first? Just curious.
 
 
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 24, 2010
I grew up in an apartment in São Paulo's downtown in Brasil.

For those who are not familiar with the city is the largest city in Brasil and the second one in America after Buenos Aires in Argentina. It’s metropolitan area is third in America after Mexico city and NY.

My Mother works in the administrative area of a museum. And my father is a professor in arts colleges and as a painter.
 
 
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 24, 2010
Personally, I like being a topic hijacker. It gets to the point, cuts through the BS, and saves time that may be better spent doing other things -- such as washing dishes.

Here's my entry:

1. I grew up in Annapolis MD. (Famous for the U.S. Naval Academy, and blue crabs.)
2. My mother was a Data Entry Specialist for the Maryland State Government.
3. My father initially was an Electrician, but then went off to become a career criminal. His run eventually ended when stole $25,000 from an unsuspecting widow, my car (yes, his own son's car), a few firearms, and went on a multi-state crime spree. When he was finally captured, he attempted to hijack the judge's topic of conversation by blaming his wife and children for becoming like Clyde Barrow.

I guess being an Electrician will do that to a person...

 
 
Jul 23, 2010
I was born in England, but grew up (and live) in Vancouver, Canada.
My father was the manager of a print shop at the university.
My mother had a job at a government office.

I am a computer programmer. I am a terrible listener. I wait for the other meat puppets to shut their pie-holes long enough for me to get a word in edge-wise.

But I'm working on it. Thanks to Scott's previous blog post I now recognize the problem, and thanks to the hypnotic effect of his post, I ordered 3 Dale Carnegie books from Amazon. I hope Amazon pays you a decent commission, Scott.
 
 
Jul 23, 2010
Robert Fulghum (he of "All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" fame, has a list of what he calls Conversation Lifeboats. These are questions that consistently lead to interesting responses and discussions. They're almost all of the "Suppose you could...?" variety and really fun. Take a look at:

http://robertfulghum.com/index.php/fulghumweb/entry/2060_the_list_revisted_and_revised/
 
 
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 23, 2010
I grew up in Fresno, CA. My dad was a furniture upholsterer. In the 60's and 70's he reupholstered many of the antique furniture in Yosemite Park at the hotels.

Once when I was about 14 years old we were delivering a couch. To get the couch into the living room we had to go through the garage, out the side door and around the house to the back glass sliding door. While we were carrying the couch through the garage I saw a small monkey running along the outside of the house and into the garage, jump up on the car parked in the garage, onto my right shoulder and stopping on my head. The family business would let me drop the couch and run.
 
 
Jul 23, 2010
I was in one of the Delta lounges in Atlanta. There was a couple in their mid-40s (perhaps) seated nearby. The guy was a "Creepy Listener". He was OVERLY attentive. Leaning forward. Extremely focused. Constant eye contact. Inside of her personal space. (Maybe he was doing it out of a desperate attempt to NOT stare at her cleavage...)

Perhaps it made her feel like everything she said was fascinating.

I, on the other hand, would have to smack the guy...
 
 
Jul 23, 2010
I grew up in the mountains of north central PA - town of 345. Dad was a mechanic and mom was a professional yard sales-person. I, of course, thought I knew everything and didn’t have to listen to anyone because only an idiot would move his/her family to the middle of nowhere and expect to make a living. After several failed careers and relationships, I finally started listening to the people I respected. Frankly, I got tired of all the drama. I don’t think of listening as an action as much as trying to hear what someone isn't saying. I really like the concept of “seek first to understand then be understood” (credit to Stephen Covey). It would have saved me a lot in court costs and personal property. I hate it when motivational speakers make you feel like you’ve been an idiot your whole life until you read their book…
 
 
Jul 23, 2010
I grew up in San Antonio. (Is the number of San Antonians responding to this post large enough to trigger your concidence detector? Oh, wait, that's a tangent.) My dad was a mechanical engineer and bearing salesman. From him I learned to never be late for a meeting, especially if I might want something from the other person. And because my father in law was also a salesman (life insruance), I think I'm pretty good at distinguishing those who really know the product from those who are only repeating a standard pitch.

Dad and mom met during WWI, when she was still working as a medical lab technician. As a mother she epitomized "Doctor Mom," long before the term was coined. I think I got as much of my interest in science from her as from my dad.

I think the post and comments are all really interesting. The only responders I wouldn't want to talk to are those who don't recognize anything interesting in their parents' lives - they'd be bored with me too.
 
 
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 23, 2010
Grew up in Jersey, both parents program computers.

I'm what I think you'd consider a "natural conversationalist", so my angle might be a little different from most of the ones I've seen here. My experience with listening is that usually either a) you're not bored because the other person isn't boring, or b) you aren't really listening. You'll be surprised how far you can get with the head nod, occasional monosyllabic generic conversational offering, and thinking about something else.

If you have to listen and pay attention to someone boring for whatever reason, a good technique is trying to think of the funniest, most out-of-line thing you can say as a response to whatever the other person is saying. You're not bored, and you're following what is being said.
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 23, 2010
It's probably just me, but I find it terribly boring to know where somebody grew up or what their parents did for a living, or any facts at all about their history.

Ik grew up in Amsterdam, Holland. My father worked as a lelegraphist on a boat and as a mailman, my mother worked as a tailor. Yawn, see?

I think the main property of a good conversationalist is to not be self-obsessed, and to BE interested in the other person (instead of ACTING interested).
 
 
 
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog