Being a good conversationalist is a skill that needs to be developed. You are born with an innate desire to be heard. Before you can formulate words, you know to communicate your needs by crying.

But, as an adult, how often do you truly feel heard? Do you sometimes wonder if anyone is truly listening?


Have you ever had the experience where you are relaying a story to your friend or colleague who then interrupts and re-directs the discussion to be about them? According to journalist Celeste Headlee, there are two directions a conversation can take:

  1. Shift Response - where one person continually shifts the conversation back to themselves.
  2. Support Response - where the other person brings something up that supports what you are saying, creating a back and forth dialogue.


It may be difficult to recognize your own deficiencies when it comes to conversation. Headlee suggests making a list of the five things others do in a conversation that are most annoying to you (being interrupted, give curt responses, etc.) 

Then, ask someone close to you, how many of those things they think you do. There's a good chance you have picked up some of the bad behaviors that annoy you the most.

This tends to happen in conversations where both individuals are vying to get air-time, neither truly listening to what the other is saying.

Listening is active. At its most basic level, it’s about focus, paying attention.

— Simon Sinek


An easy way to avoid conversation narcissism is to practice active listening. 

Have you ever found yourself speaking to someone and, while you are talking, they are looking at their screen? They are either in front of a computer or their head is down, looking at their phone. You might say, “Are you listening to me?” to which the reply is typically, “Of course I am!”

But they aren’t.

Our brains are unable to do two things simultaneously, especially if those two activities are drawing on the same part of the brain. When you are listening to someone speak and trying to read an e-mail, both of these require you to use the part of the brain that processes language. And it can’t listen and read at the same time.

If I am speaking with someone who is looking at a screen, I wait. I stop talking (it sometimes takes them a minute to realize) and when they look up, I simply say, “I see that you’re in the middle of something, we can talk about this later.” They usually get the message that I am not willing to compete with e-mail for their attention and they come back to engaging in the discussion.

Remember your mom telling you to look people in the eye when you speak to them? It’s good advice and in today’s age of digital distraction, it’s one of the only ways you know that somebody is actually listening.


For starters, if someone wants to speak with you and you are in the middle of something, ask them to give you one minute so you can finish your thought and clear your head to be completely attentive. And then, look them in the eye and give them your undivided attention.


Active listening is not the same as engaging in a discussion. When you are actively listening, you are focused on what the other person is saying, without preparing your next comment.

Active listeners will listen without interrupting and when the other person stops talking, will ask specific questions related to what the other person has said (a support response, not a shift response).

If you pay attention, you will be able to identify who the active listeners are in your life. They are the ones who make you feel heard and valued. If you are supervising people, the skill of active listening can make you go from a good to a great manager.


Check out Celeste Headlee's: 

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Check out Super-Productive: 120 Strategies to Do More and Stress Less.

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