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 22, 2010
Grew up in NJ, parents were teachers.

You know the phrase, "if you're bored then you're boring?" I think part of being a good listener is the ability to find something interesting in every conversation, even ones where you're "bored out of your frickin' skull."

Jul 22, 2010
Miramichi NB. My father was a labourer at a pulp and paper mill that has since shut down, further crippling the poor economy of that tiny place and forcing mass migrations out of there, effectively halving the population from when I was a teenager.

I too have one of those faces; everyone stops to ask me for help, directions or tell me their life story. I don't mind; being from the east coast it's pretty normal to have what others would consider inappropriate levels of intimacy in conversation with total strangers. I like to be helpful if I can and often offer my assistance to strangers who look lost.

My big conversation problem (that I know of) is that I don't know when or how to end a conversation. It's time to stop talking, I can feel it, but I don't know how to wrap it up nicely and just move on. Or I have something else to do, and while the other person is saying something I'm interested in hearing, I don't have the time to hear it all. I would love to know how to end a conversation in such a way that everyone is left feeling good about it.
Jul 22, 2010
I don't talk; that makes conversations a bit stilted from my end, but at least I don't get sucked into the boring tales of whatever that seem to permeate my office. I used to hijack conversations; now I at least make a comment about the speaker's POV before I jump to my correlating tale. I have noticed it helping keep conversations going, so I take it as a positive sign.

Born & raised in St. Louis, Missouri. Those who are born here tend to stay here, as the question most likely to come up is, "Where did you go to high school?" It's often the conversation starter. I enjoy the completely blank looks when I name my HS (very small and in a very small township). That leads to awkward association-type explanations of where the township is, what schools we played against in sports, etc. My dad worked for Chrysler for 30 years (retired before the plant closed), and mom worked as an office something-or-other for about 25 years before being laid off.

I have the problem that EVERYONE just - talks to me. Random strangers in line strike up conversations like they know me, or I know them. I'm not talking about the normal, "this line isn't moving very fast"; I'm talking about, "My children love HSM" or "Do you know how far away X store is?" I've been asked numerous times for help in stores because for some reason, people seem to think I work there. It's happened at a Target (I wasn't wearing red), a Dollar Tree and a shoe store. I've been told I have "one of those faces". Is there a face transplant program I can participate in?
Jul 22, 2010
I am now worried that I am one of "those a-holes." I have tons of stories from growing up that I tell that make people laugh, but my wife says that they are annoying (she has heard them all). I think that I am going to have to switch my story policies. I am told my stories are fantastic, but maybe people are just humoring me.

I grew up on West Palm Beach, FL (this year it moved down to 13th most violent city in America per capita) where my father owned a mechanic shop, was a bouncer in the evenings and eventually bought the bar he was working in. Growing up I worked at the shop and in college (for engineering) I worked as a bouncer in the bar.
Jul 22, 2010
When people find out that my job is investing peoples money, the first or second question is inevitably "what are a couple stocks that you really like right now" or a variation thereof. I get tired of this, because they want a hot stock tip (if there is such a thing) for free. Open an account with me and maybe I will tell you...

Then they launch into some story where they once bought 3000 shares of XYZ and it tripled, or went to 0, or whatever.

I have had many interesting conversations on the plane using your techniques.

I grew up in San Diego county close to the Wild Animal Park. We had season passes there and it was great. This is a must see if anyone is ever in San Diego area.
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Jul 22, 2010
"Nothing is more boring than a description of food."

I have to disagree. Dream stories are easily the worst. There's absolutely zero common ground there, and to make matters even worse there's never even a coherent narrative to hang onto. There's no way to listen to a dream story that doesn't involve nodding your head and saying "wow, crazy" from time to time until the excruciating tale has ended.
Jul 22, 2010
I grew up in various parts of Saskatchewan -- from the city of Saskatoon to the northern boreal forests in Hudson Bay (not to be confused with the Hudson's Bay in Ontario and Manitoba) I have spent the entirity of my life exploring this province... and looking for a way to leverage myself into a new country or city in the future...

My parents were ordinary, my father was a bank manager (which is why we moved so much) and my mother varied between a homemaker and a baker...
Jul 22, 2010
Some usfeul tips here. If I mention that I grew up in Worthing on the South Coast of the UK I wonder how many of your readers will know where that is. My Dad incidentally used to manage a Woolworths store, in the good old days when every high street had one and before they went bust.
Jul 22, 2010
Like you mentioned yesterday, I was one of "those a-holes" when it came to conversations, too. I didn't take a Carnegie course, but my wife made me read the book. It became fun to listen, particularly because you can more easily spot those that are still one of "those a-holes." I also noticed that I volunteered less information and didn't get as many things thrown on my plate to handle. Steering the conversation to something less uninteresting is sometimes difficult but always rewarding.
Growing up the son of a public school teacher, later a guidance counselor in Biloxi also gives me plenty of fodder for steering conversations. And if that doesn't do it the diversity of the places I've lived (MS, AL, LA, WA, OK) or visited usually allows me to interject something in the conversation. Although there was a time about a month ago in San Francisco when I got involved in an hourlong conversation about firearms, ammunition and calculations of fps, grains, and related items that I was completely unarmed for. That was the first time that I noticed that over the last three years I have gone from being a conversation hog to a conversation steerer just as you mention here.
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