I’ve heard conversation compared to throwing a ball back and forth. The idea expressed in this model is that you’ve got to keep throwing the ball back. If you catch the ball and refuse to return it the conversation ends. Some merit exists in this concept. It applies primarily, however, in situations where people want to have a conversation.
Many people are not looking to actually converse, they want a monologue with an audience.
In communication whether it is more noble to talk or listen depends on the situation. There is a season for listening and a season for talking. Versatility in conversation, the ability to listen and speak effectively, is the goal. Listening is not merely refraining from talking. It means you follow what is being said, provide nonverbal feedback, ask an occasional question, and at times let the person know you are following or not following what is being said. Listening is not the passive part of conversation, it is just as active as speaking.
Because I do a lot of listening I sometimes find myself in a setting where it’s really tough to listen. It usually involves a time when I’m tired, the topic does not interest me at all, and I think that the person really needs to talk to someone (hence the reason I do not escape, at least not right away). I devised some activities that keep a fraction of my brain engaged in those times. Disclaimer: If these activities distract you from actually listening then it defeats the purpose of using them. I’ve given these activities a 1-10 rating for helpfulness (how much it assists engaging in the conversation), difficulty (how distracting it is or how much effort it takes), and entertainment (self explanatory).
When Listening is Tough: Activities to Stay Alert
- Devise follow-up questions and clarifying questions, even if you don’t ask them aloud. This is the easiest one on the list. I use it the most frequently. (Helpfulness: 9.8, Difficulty: 3.2, Entertainment: 5.7)
- Identify what words or phrases the person likes. Watch for patterns. I’ve noticed patterns in my own vocabulary; sometimes a particular verb or adjective seems to turn up every few sentences. (Helpfulness: 7.1, Difficulty: 5.2, Entertainment: 6.2)
- Think of lines from movies and songs that either summarize what the other person is saying or fit the situation. (Helpfulness: 4.1, Difficulty: 7.2, Entertainment: 8.4)
- Count spoken words between eye blinks. When you do this it keeps you very focused on the person, for you’re looking them right in the eye (to catch the blinks). I’ve found this to be very entertaining, yet difficult to pull off. Especially when rooting for a new between-blinks record: Don’t blink! Use short words! Talk faster! C’mon! C’mon! Yeeeeaaaahhhhhhhhh! New record! Most times when I go to this activity I have given up on the conversation. (Helpfulness: 0.3, Difficulty: 9.9, Entertainment: 10.0)