The quality of our conversations is a huge determinant of the quality of our relationships. Getting to know a new colleague, client, mentor, etc. can often be awkward if you’re not confident in your conversation skills.
Luckily, you can practice those skills to be a better conversationalist, and the best way to do that is through saying nothing at all! It’s through active listening.
I specifically say “active” listening here because it does require action to listen to someone in a way that allows you to respond thoughtfully. The most productive and meaningful conversations happen when both parties are aware of how to listen well.
Here are 8 steps to improve conversation skills through active listening:
1. Stop what you are doing
If you’re going to engage in a conversation with someone, let them know you’re listening intently by stopping what you’re working on to give them your attention. If someone comes over to you and you don’t make eye contact, continue working, and ask what they want, it’ll be pretty clear you’re not actually ready to listen.
2. Shift your attention
When you’re in the middle of something and someone comes over to talk to you, there are a few ways you can respond.
- Jot down a quick note as a reminder of where you left off, then shift your attention to the other person
- Ask them for a minute to finish writing a sentence or save a document and then turn to them to talk
- If you’re pressed for time at the moment, ask if this is a quick conversation or if you can schedule a time later to talk
It’s okay to let someone know that you’re not available to talk right that second. Letting yourself finish a thought or scheduling a better time to talk will allow you to be more focused on the conversation, rather than continuing to think about what you were just doing or need to get done.
3. Clear your mind
While you’re shifting gears mentally to start a conversation, try to intentionally clear your mind. It’s easy to let your mind wander to what you have to do next, or what’s for dinner, or that great story you want to tell a friend, but right now it’s time for the conversation at hand. Push those distracting thoughts aside and help yourself focus with the next step…
4. Focus on the other person
Mentally focusing on someone’s words is much easier when you are physically focused also. Turn away from your computer, face the person and make eye contact instead of constantly looking around the room. Giving them positive nonverbal signals that you’re paying attention helps them to know that you’re focused on the conversation.
Alright, the time has come – time to listen.
Now that you’re focused on the conversation, you need to maintain focus by actively listening to the other person. People speak at about 150 words per minute, but it’s estimated that we think at 400-500 words per minute! That’s a lot of extra space between their words and your thoughts to distract you. The next three steps are where you’ll keep that space filled with thoughts relevant to the conversation rather than distractions.
6. Write it down
If you hear something important or insightful that you don’t want to forget, write it down! If you don’t have a pen and paper and want to use your phone, just make sure to let the other person know you’re making a note of something they said so they don’t think you’re ignoring them.
7. Confirm what you heard
Sometimes what someone says doesn’t come across the way they’re thinking about it. If you’re not sure you understand what they’re saying (or even if you do), wait until they’re done with a thought and then confirm what you took away from what they said.
This is one of those often skipped but highly important conversation skills, since it helps the other person be more clear about their thoughts and prevents miscommunication.
Listening is more than hearing.
Once you’ve gone through these steps to ensure you’re truly listening to what someone has to say, you can process through it and formulate a response. One of the toughest aspects of listening well is not taking so much thought to respond that you miss what they’re actually saying, but still having adequate time to think through what to say.
If you need more time to process, it’s okay to tell them! Just make sure to confirm what they were trying to say, and let them know you’ll think through it and respond soon.
Also, keep in mind that not every conversation needs a response to fix a problem. Sometimes a person just needs a listening ear but isn’t looking for advice. If you’re not sure whether to share your advice or not, again – ask!
To improve conversation skills in the workplace, BizLibrary Productions has created a short micro video lesson on active listening that covers these 8 tips.
Watch a 1-minute preview of “Pay Attention and Listen” from The BizLibrary Collection here: