You can learn a lot by listening. Eavesdropping on a conversation at a nearby table in a restaurant, for example, one diner recently witnessed the hazards of the monologue. "Four people at the table," he recounted, "but only one guy was talking. Something about his favorite football team. Not just for a minute, but for a long time this guy was talking. For the first couple of minutes, the other people seemed to be listening. They said 'yeah,' they looked at the guy, they leaned forward. But when the guy kept going, they all seemed to change—leaning away, looking around, fidgeting, not murmuring a word."

It's not too surprising that, feeling excluded from any conversation, the other diners sought relief by turning their attention elsewhere. Even when a person is entertaining and witty, those in conversation with him expect to converse—that is, they expect dialogue, an exchange, an opportunity to both listen and speak. In a conversation, these two roles should be shared and taken up in sequence with each person participating fully.

Here are three ways of practicing and encouraging that participation.


The primary concept in conversation is balance. That is, no participant should do all the talking or dominate the exchange. If one person is "monopolizing the conversation," not much conversing is taking place. Even if the purpose of the exchange is for one participant to impart information to another, both should have an opportunity to speak and to respond. At any moment, the person speaking has control of the conversation; others may be reluctant to interrupt (as they should be), so the speaker needs to be prepared to share control.

As you speak, notice the amount and kind of attention you receive. When attention begins to diminish or shift, the speaker needs to act on that inattention. At times the proper action may be to adjust the volume, tone, or rhythm of the voice. But most often the proper action is to stop speaking, cede control, and listen.


Just as you read actively, making meaning as you read, you must listen actively. An active listener hears and processes not only words but the tone and emotion with which they are delivered. Notice the speaker's cues. An uplift at the end of a sentence often signals that the speaker is checking your understanding. A pause may suggest that the speaker is gathering her thoughts or is changing direction. These cues are a part of the message; noticing them is a measure of active listening. Responding to them with a nod, a frown or a smile, or a shift in stance assures the speaker that you are engaged and actively listening. Truly active listening requires the listener to paraphrase what has been heard to get overt agreement or clarification—tedious if done for every sentence but a technique sure to let even the more junior person in a business conversation have a voice.


Whether speaking or listening, maintain and demonstrate attention. Doing so indicates respect and interest, both of which are essential to effective communication. Just as in a presentation, facial expression, stance, and gestures send a message. As you speak and listen, maintain eye focus. If you need to break its intensity, look away occasionally. But look down for a moment rather than up and to the side so you don't appear to be rolling your eyes or tracking the progress of a spider on the ceiling. Use facial expressions and gestures to show agreement, surprise, puzzlement. Stance and posture can also demonstrate attention, most especially by mirroring the positions and movements of the other person.

Good conversational skills improve your effectiveness and accessibility; such skills are often an attribute of good managers, good leaders, and good friends. They know how to talk with people rather than to or, even worse, at them—a difference that diners almost everywhere can appreciate.