by Elizabeth Kempers
Elizabeth: I was once shy and didn’t know how to have a conversation, but now I can approach anyone and have a pleasant talk.
One way I have learnt my listening skills is by having conversations with new people. If I am away from home and somewhere where no one knows me, I practice opening up conversations with people in public. I approach a person who looks friendly and ask them how their day is. A good place to practice is on public transport when you are travelling with people you do not know.
To make sure that someone is interested in talking, look at their body language. Watch the person’s face. Are they smiling? Do they look as though they are interested? People show that they are interested by making eye contact, standing at a distance that is comfortable for both you and them, and they will often add to the conversation. If the person turns or walks away, they are not interested and this is when you need to stop the conversation and let them go. Reflect on what you did and think of ways you can approach someone else with more success. Don’t take it personally if someone does not want to speak with you. Sometimes, they are more shy than you are.
I practice listening to what the person is saying, and let them tell me what they feel comfortable with. Some people will say a little bit and I then ask general open ended questions. Over time, I have learnt many social skills. For example, one way of indicating to the other person that you are listening is to “reflect” what they say, by briefly summarising what they have said every now and then.
Listening is a skill that is easy to learn and makes it easier to connect with other people. It helps people to understand each other and is much more than simply being quiet. To listen, instead of letting your mind wander or thinking about the next thing you want to say, simply stay in the moment and focus on understanding the message that the other person is trying to get across to you. Maintain good eye contact and look at the person speaking with you. It is possible to gauge how much eye contact is okay by watching the other person. If they look away, look away briefly and then glance back at their face. If they wish to make eye contact again, they will. If they do not want to, then think about what you are saying, and read their body language. Is there an obvious reason they are looking away? Is the topic of conversation difficult for them? Changing the topic of conversation may help at this point. If there are distractions like a television on in the background or the radio, turn these down or completely off.
To help the other person open up and talk more, ask open ended questions. These are questions that require more of an answer than a simple yes or no. They encourage the person you are speaking with to add more to the conversation. An example is “how are you enjoying the weather today?” There are several ways people can answer this. As another tip, talking about the weather is a safe topic of conversation if you would like to start a conversation but don’t know how.
The benefits of listening include understanding the message that a person is trying to get across and developing empathy. People love to talk about themselves and their passions, so by being willing to listen, you may even make a new friend!
-Elizabeth Kempers accesses RichmondPRA’s Taree service