To cut to the chase of what could have potentially turned into a heated debate from tonight, I had a conversation with someone who insisted that he was listening to what I was saying, when really he wasn’t, but when I put it another way he finally understood where I was coming from.  Sound familiar?  Well, that’s because he didn’t view himself as a true listener in the engagement of conversation – he viewed himself more as a “speaker in listener’s clothing.”  Fortunately, I was wary enough to know that my message wasn’t sinking in, so I quickly rephrased accordingly with the same underlying information.  In the context to carrying a productive conversation, it takes at least two to tango and many times partners have to switch places between being good speakers and listeners – something I’ve been pretty cognizant of during professional discourses due to constructive feedback from others in my past.

Early in my career, I received a bit of advice from a former boss, whose words still ring in my head every once in a while, “Joon, just pretend you had a couple of beers in you, before any of your public speaking engagements.”  It was a nice way for him to tell me that most people had no clue what I was talking about because I was speaking about a subject matter that was entirely new to them or was fairly complex in nature, although the content I presented was properly contextualized to the subject matter.  I guess it’s my proclivity to be as honest as possible with the material by not compromising esoteric terminologies while trying to raise core competencies of those around me.  The hard lesson I had to learn, years ago, is that sometimes people just don’t care about the proper use of lexicon, framing the conversation in the correct context or increasing their knowledge about new or advanced concepts but are more interested in how my message translates in context to what they know and care about.

I admit that I can slip back into this mode every once in a while, as another former coworker also told me to “dumb down” my diction during conversations so that everyone could understand what the hell I was talking about.  Maybe it’s just my perception but I believe if I took that advice prima facie, I might subconsciously start treating people like they’re bumbling fools and might limit key nuanced information due to my lowered expectations of them – definitely not part of my repertoire when it comes to my egalitarian style of communicating.  At the same time, I do understand and appreciate the subtext of keeping the audiences’ minds from being distracted with ancillary information and quickly getting to the salient points as effectively as possible with diction they’re more familiar with.

Although I believe my constant quest, to reality-check myself and “feel out” my listeners, plays an important for speaking confidently in conversations and in communications, in general, I also believe confident listening skills are equally important, if not more.  What I mean by “confident listeners” are those who (1) would disregard any self-perceptions of looking foolish by asking questions to better understand; and (2) actively listen, versus formulating their next words for an earlier point they’re so eagerly awaiting to counter while passively listening.  We’ve all been there and we’ve all seen and sensed when people are half-listening.  For me, if I play an active listening role and proactively question or rephrase my message, it’s also a courtesy that I hope would be reciprocated.

For many of us, the way we speak and listen is so ingrained that we have to make conscious efforts to improve our skills, such as self-improvement classes, although I dare say there are far more public speaking classes than there are listening classes.  Even though the social dynamics between public speaking and conversations are very different, it’s vital for the one who’s speaking to view the audience as “partners” in the social transactions and pick up visual queues to achieve a workable balance of contributions in both circumstances.  In addition, audience members should also view themselves as a true partner in the social exchange, by asking questions that others are fearful to ask in a forum setting or being a confident listener when it’s their turn to listen in a conversation.

Going back to my conversation from earlier tonight, the guy who wasn’t listening is actually a pretty good guy.  It’s just that his modus operandi is to myopically will things to happen without understanding the amount of work that needs to be done or the long-term implications of a given action.  Hence why I had to rephrase along the lines of, “Seriously, that shit will hurt us in the long run.”

“Ideal conversation must be an exchange of thought, and not, as many of those who worry most about their shortcomings believe, an eloquent exhibition of wit or oratory”

– Emily Post

“The best of life is conversation, and the greatest success is confidence, or perfect understanding between two people.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson