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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.

 
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Jul 23, 2010
My dad worked for USAID. My parents and sister were living in the Philippines when my mom was late in her pregancy with me. Like many American women she went to Singapore to take advantage of the superior medical facilities, so I was born there. A few months later we moved to Virginia for just a couple years, then moved to Senegal. We were in Senegal and then Cote D'Ivoire for a total of nine years, then went back to Virginia. I spent one year of high school in India but actually graduated in Virginia.

I now live in Washington, DC. Having lived in West Africa and India guarantees entertaining conversations with cabbies because many DC cabbies are from those places. It's rare that I'm in a cab and I don't ask the driver where he's from. Usually they just give me a general answer like "Oh, Africa." Then when I prod a little more and show them I know where there country is and something about it, and possibly have visited or lived there, they get very excited. By the end of the ride we're best friends. If I'm lucky I usually get out of them a recommendation for the restaurant in the DC area that reminds them most of home. I've followed up on some of those recommendations, and it turns out that cabbies know where the best food is.
 
 
Jul 23, 2010
I was a navy brat. My folks moved around a lot before my father ended his term of service in Jacksonville, Florida. Later we moved to Orlando, FL, where I met my wife. She was a navy brat, too, and had lived as far away as California. When we started comparing notes, we discovered that due to our parents moving about we had managed to be born in the same hospital. Okay, not the most interesting coincidence, but at least it gave us something in common to start with!
 
 
Jul 23, 2010
My father is a retired civil engineer, mum a teacher. I was born in Stroud, UK, but we were posted in many locations around the world - Hong Kong, Nepal, Seychelles, Caribbean etc. Sorry byrdmouse, I fail to regard American states as particularly diverse ;-)

@johnweet
Had a girlfriend in Worthing when at uni - there you go, at least a couple of us are acquainted with Worthing. It's just down the road from me now.

There are differences between sexes - my father is a classic male pattern lecturer, though he DOES have good stories:
http://www.improvingyourworld.com/relationships/male_pattern_talking_000406.html

"Few of us like to be talked at. We prefer to be talked with. Conversation is best understood as a mutual endeavor, and male pattern talking as in the lecture style does not achieve mutuality. Instead, it feels to the listener like being parented or bossed, as when a superior talks down to a subordinate."

I have had to try and work quite hard to try and overcome this tendency and have mutually involving conversations. Hopefully I have at least partially succeeded.
 
 
Jul 22, 2010
I was born in Salt Lake City, Utah. When I was five years old my dad left his job at United Airlines as a storeroom clerk and moved his family to his hometown of Bluebell in the Uintah Basin in Northeastern, UT. Think Moab but with snow. Two streets, five main families, maybe 200 people. We lived in an abandoned church house. My mom used to let us bring our bikes in the house to ride in the main hall. My brother and I discovered that the hatch in my bedroom ceiling led what was called the projection room. We only realized what it was when we found the old movie screen in the neighboring out building called, The Farmer's Office where the farmers used to meet to discuss water rights. 1 water turn is worth double 1 acre in Bluebell. We had a coal furnace and a coal bin that had a door only wide enough for a child to enter. Bluebell's only claim to fame is the highest per capita of UFO sightings of anywhere in the United States. Oh, and it's also the farther you can get from a railroad line of any sort. It also sits at the foot of the only mountains in North or South America that run East-West and not North-South.
 
 
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Jul 22, 2010
So I'm from Downey, the most unremarkable little burg in the greater LA area. Parents did office work. Yawn.

I thought active listening was what you're supposed to do to make people feel like what they say is interesting and important. Parroting back an occasional word in the form of a question, nodding, and keeping eye contact. A form of lying, I suppose.
 
 
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Jul 22, 2010
(new account, for privacy reasons)

Belgium.

My father was a sailor but later became a judge. His father was a doctor.

My mother was a research assistant (pedagogy) before she got married. Her father was a college professor.
 
 
Jul 22, 2010
Grew up in Ecuador. My parents were missionaries.
 
 
Jul 22, 2010
One of my weakest points is that I'm not a very good conversationalist, so I'm definitely going to try these out.

I was raised in Antioch, CA. Most of the time it's just another suburb, but every now and then it makes news when someone is found to have been kept as a prisoner in some creep's basement.

My father is an eccentric artist: painting, music, and inventing a machine to people who have spent their lives in wheelchairs begin taking steps. When I was a couple of years old, he built an airplane in the garage to help him get his start as a crop duster.

My mother found work here and there, but was pretty consistent in giving piano lessons. When I was a child, I'd sometimes take naps under the piano while people practiced.
 
 
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Jul 22, 2010
Grew up mostly in in San Antonio. Dad is an E. Tenn native who is a whiz with languages. He speaks Spanish and Portuguese particularly well. After a whirl with the State dept as a cultural liasion officer in Brazil, he came back to the US and taught high school and then college. Mom is a KY native who stayed home until I was 12 and then became a 5th grade science teacher. She had one of those great rooms with animals, rockets, and petri dishes stuffed into every corner, and from the ceiling, models of the constellations spinning.

You know, Appalachians sometimes get a bum rap as unintellectual slugs; but my parents are kick a$$ interesting and so are my other mountain relatives.
 
 
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Jul 22, 2010
I was born in Saginaw, MI. My father owned a ceramic shop, and my mother stayed at home until my brother and I were in school, when she went to work for a bridal store and became a cake decorator.
 
 
Jul 22, 2010
I grew up in Fox Lake, Illinois. It was the "end of the line" for Milwaukee Road commuter trains into Chicago, so most everybody's job had to do with the railroad (and you couldn't run across the tracks when the bell was ringing without someone reporting you to your parents). My dad was a railway mail clerk. My mom raised six kids, then went to nursing school and got a paid job.
 
 
Jul 22, 2010
I am from Amarillo, Texas, which often gets the response 1.) I was snowed in there once or 2.) that's where they have the 72 oz. steak at the Big Texas. You are right, it is a good conversation starter. And my dad was a land surveyor for a gas company and walked a million !$%*! over Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming deciding where to put pipelines. Mom stayed home and introduced me to writing, painting, piano, reading, eating, laughing, gardening and a million other wonderful things.

I agree with all you say about conversation. I am a good conversationalist and listener (I think), though it is frustrating to test my skills and draw out so much from the other person and never have them ask or learn a thing about me.
 
 
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Jul 22, 2010
I was born in MN. My dad is an electrical engineer, my mom a domestic engineer.

You'll probably have to go to two degrees to find some interesting common ground there, unless you happen to be fascinated by extreme cold, circuit design, or parenting.

@Rhayader, I agree that dream stories are generally incredibly boring, with one exception: when the dream involves you. I had a friend in high school who had a very detailed and elaborate dream about being pregnant and giving birth. Apparently in this dream, I was her doctor. You and everyone else reading this probably don't find that interesting, but it kept me quite interested while she was telling me. I felt it gave me an insight into how she thought of me. I came to the conclusion that she would be okay with me seeing her naked, but only because she considered me an asexual being like a doctor.
 
 
Jul 22, 2010
I grew up in Southern California. My parents fed me for a living as far as I know.
 
 
Jul 22, 2010
Born in Edmonton, raised in Calgary.

Dad's a money guy - accounting, mostly (it's in his blood). Was a big guy in KPMG for awhile before getting planted in Winnipeg. Was also pretty high up in the Masons. But he also does a mean Darth Vader impression without knowing he's doing so; walks into the Hongkong Bank in a black suit, and bankers flock to him with hunched backs calling him sir, while he says "dispense with the pleasantries". He also did Kung Fu for 10 years, and I pressured him into joining Hap Ki Do, where he got his black belt.

Mom was a wannabe hippie, turned visual artist. While raising us, she got her degree at Alberta College of Art & Design. Did some of the coolest sculpting and painting I've seen (my wife always wants more; we only have her art in the house now because she has such a range). Don't think I'm biased, either - I criticize her for everything. But her creativity is undeniable. She's sold some works for a few thousand here & there, is an accepted and active member of the local art community, teaches students, and was commissioned to do a big metal sculpture (which moves!) over the gate of a business.
 
 
Jul 22, 2010
Johnweet, A few years ago I spent some time working in Shorham by Sea in the UK. One of my favorite memeries of that trip was going to a pub in Worthing called the Half Brick. Even though they are now closed I still get email from the owner Bob.

I was a long way from home on that trip as I grew up and still live in San Antonio, Texas. I really miss the UK and would love to go back some day. Another really nice place that I stayed in the UK on that same trip was Bridgenorth.
 
 
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Jul 22, 2010
first i will say, i bloody hate indian internet!
if not for that... i would have been first to comment..
Scott, you are a genius, you notice sooo many things i never would have, i.e.

As a general rule, the more dangerous or inappropriate the conversation, the more interesting it is.

i would never have noticed that...

now my story,
I was born in Rabaul, New Britain, Papua New Guinea, and lived there until i was almost 6.
My father (french) was working there as head of the volcanic observatory.
during my time there i witnessed one volcanic eruption, though i can't remember anything about it due to me being 2/3 years old.
Just before i was to turn 6, so around march, we moved to Germany (where my mom is from), and for the next two years we lived on campus of the bible school my parents were attending. After that we moved near Frankfurt AM, and lived there for close to 3 years. My parents spent that time teaching French and organizing visas etc. for us to move to India.
We finally moved to Chennai, Tamil Nadu, South India in 2004, where my parents are now involved in community development or some such.
My siblings and I were sent to a small boarding school in Ooty, in the mountains of south India, where i have been living ever since.
thats it..
 
 
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Jul 22, 2010
It's great to read you writing about conversations - As I was reading I remembered that it hasn't been so long sing you got your voice back. !$%*!$ to you!
 
 
Jul 22, 2010
Grew up the beautiful Hudson Valley of New York State. Father was an IBM'er which used to mean "Ive Been Moved", but we never did. He retired several years before the massive layoffs of the early 90's. Seemed like just about everyone around worked for IBM then, but those jobs are long gone now.
 
 
Jul 22, 2010
I'm a native Pittsburgher and definitely grew up in Western PA (no, I don't say Yin's). My dad was a structural engineer and mom was a homemaker.
I tend to be a listener, but can guide a conversation at times, but I really don't think in a straight line, so some of my comments can seem to be changing topics (but to me they're relevant). And I've heard the same stories over and over, because I'm too polite to say they're being repetitious. (middle child syndrome)
 
 
 
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