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Listen First, Talk Second

by Stephen D. Boyd, PhD, CSP, WCPS

Voltaire said, “When you listen, you have power. When you talk, you give it away.” How can we increase our power or influence by making sure we listen more than we talk?  Here are some ideas on encouraging the other person to talk so you will listen.

Begin by asking the person’s name. Not only will this make you a listener first, but it will also set up a pattern for listening more and talking less.  When people give you their names, often you will get added information, such as where they are from or what they do.  Make sure you get the name.  Ask the person to repeat the name if you are unclear about it, or make some comment about the name that allows you to repeat it to keep it firmly in mind.

Follow any short comment you make after getting the name by asking an open question. Usually these questions begin with “What,” “How,” or “Why.” If you are uncertain about what question to ask, you can connect the question to why both of you are at the same gathering. You could say, “What programs have you found most useful at the conference?” or “How do you like the convention/hotel/town/movie/performance?”  Make a short comment when he or she finishes answering the question to avoid sounding like you are conducting an interrogation.

Another way to encourage the other person to talk is to make an assertion and then pause. This will encourage the person to comment on your statement. You might say, “The meeting gave me new ideas about our program.”  Often, he or she will then add a comment to yours.

You can encourage the other person to talk by your nonverbal reaction. Nod your head, smile, keep an open posture, and look as though you anticipate that the other person will add more information. When you make a comment such as “Oh,” or “I see,” say the words with an upward inflection to sound encouraging and positive, rather than a downward inflection which would imply finality.

Keep your own spoken contributions short when possible. Avoid telling a five-minute story or giving a three-minute opinion.  Talk in 30-second segments, not three minutes. When it seems natural, end your comment by asking a question.  Thus the other person will stay engaged and continue to provide you with information.

When Lyndon Johnson was a Senator, he had a plaque on his office wall that read, “You ain’t learning nothing when you’re talking.” Both Voltaire and former President Johnson made the same point: listen first and talk second, and you will possess a knowledge advantage.

©2012 Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, WCPS

Steve Boyd, Professional Speaker, Communications ExpertAbout the Author

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Emeritus Professor of speech communication at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, Kentucky. He works with organizations that want to speak and listen more effectively to increase personal and professional performance. He can be reached at (859) 441-4999 or info@sboyd.com.