It's rare to find good listeners--especially among extroverts. This is why most of my closest friends are introverts. Not only do I appreciate their natural listening abilities, but I enjoy the challenge of coaxing them out of their shells. Introverts are often misunderstood and under-appreciated because they don't wear their hearts on their sleeves. But there is huge reward in making them feel comfortable enough to open up. For me, getting an introvert to open up is like finding buried treasure!
You can learn so much about people by listening to them talk. Everyone likes to talk about their favorite subject--which is usually themselves. Even when they're not directly talking about themselves, if you listen closely you can connect the dots back to them; ie. what motivates them, what scares them, what excites them, what they're passionate about.
Here are a few tips about how to be a good listener:
- Ask their name and then REMEMBER it! The most common question whose answer is often immediately forgotten is: "What's your name?" Have you ever noticed how five minutes later you can't remember what they told you? This is why I make an intentional effort to hear myself ask their name and then give that person an emotional and/or categorical tag in my mind to help me remember it. I never forget a name if I've made sure to truly pay attention while I'm asking the question.
- Make others comfortable through small talk. The friendliest way to get to know someone is through small talk. It's non-threatening. It's general. Small talk helps defuse awkwardness among strangers and it puts everyone at ease. Small talk is the doorway to conversation. If you can throw in a little self-deprecating humor and make someone laugh, all the better. Through small talk, you can pick up cues from people and use these cues to lead you to an engaging conversation.
Ask them questions about who they are. Once you've had a couple of small-talk exchanges, it's appropriate to ask what they do. Express interest. If someone loves what he/she does, you'll know immediately because they will elaborate with enthusiasm. If their job isn't what excites them, listen for cues in their elaboration. Sometimes they'll hint at their true passion which opens the doorway for you to ask another question.
Ask about their passion. Even if someone is interested in something totally unfamiliar to me, I am always intrigued--especially if they are passionate about it. Once, on a flight to Chicago, I listened to the guy next to me explain his entire career as a bouncer for a big casino. I'm not a gambler and hate Las Vegas, but I LOVED listening to this guy tell his me what his job was like. The more interested I was, the more open and interesting he became. It was a virtuous cycle. By the time I walked off the plane, I knew more about gambling and Las Vegas than if I'd read an entire book on the subject.
The last trick to being a good listener is reciprocation. If the person you're talking with feels like you're just pumping them for information, they'll be suspicious. What are you trying to sell? Do you really care? This is why it's important to give AND receive in a conversation. Once they have shared--you share. Or, maybe you make it safe for them by sharing something first.
Last of all, a good listener doesn't have an agenda. A good listener is simply there to be there. And that is the greatest gift of all.