Listen First

A communication principle that I have a hard time adhering to is “listen first.” I can’t wait to start talking, and I sometimes pay the consequences. When we listen first, we can sense the direction of the conversation. If we listen for a while, not only do we figure out the topic, but we also discover  if the conversation is congenial or adversarial . By what is said, we can tell pretty quickly who has the most knowledge on the topic.

If we are meeting someone for the first time, by listening first, we obtain background information which will help us enter the conversation smoothly. For example, I was attending a visitation period for the deceased mother of Connie, one of the members where I preach. Since I knew none of her 13 brothers and sisters, Connie,  wanting to help me out said,  “This is my father,”  and pointed to an elderly gentlemen nearby. I walked over to him and in my best sincere and pious manner said, “Hi, I’m Steve Boyd and I am the minster where Al and Connie worship. I’m glad to meet you and I’m so sorry about the death of your wife.” He looked at me kind of strangely, then down at the ground, and said, “Oh, we have been divorced 30 or 40 years.”  Stunned by my faux pas, I could do nothing but stand silently, which is what I should have done first.

We can certainly be involved in a conversation without talking. Nodding our heads, smiling, and leaning toward the person who is speaking are all ways to be engaged without speaking.

If we are in a business context, we can prepare for a conversation by learning ahead of time the names and positions of people who will be in the meeting. For example, recently I was addressing a health care association. I had been working with their public relations person to prepare for the presentation. In our conversations, he had mentioned the name of the executive director, a key person in having the annual conference. Fortunately, when she introduced herself to me, I could respond by expressing my appreciation for the invitation to speak.

We have all embarrassed ourselves by speaking when we should have been listening. We can avoid many of these situations by listening first and speaking second.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at

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