One of the most famous quotes about communication comes from Stephen R. Covley. He intelligently remarked that most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. In essence, this means that the most powerful thing you can do when you're talking to somebody is to focus on learning instead of educating, being the student rather than the teacher. But why is this approach such a mindblowing game changer for you at work? What makes it transform superficial interactions into meaningful frameworks for long-lasting business?

Having conversations as an educator versus as a student

People tend to listen to respond, to be blunt, because they don't want to look stupid. They're desperately afraid of what their partner will think if they don't have an answer, or they mistakenly perceive knee-jerk information dumping as the sharing necessary for bonding. But in an article for Business 2 Community (B2C), Paul O'Brian succinctly explains why listening to respond doesn't work. It

  • Greatly increases the odds we'll miss vital points that might change what you want to say, and
  • Stops us from asking questions that enable us to acquire more information of value.

So listening to learn has a very practical benefit--you're in a better position to formulate a truly educated answer. But three key things happen from the psychological level when you take a student approach, too.

  1. Your conversation partner feels like you are taking them seriously. They feel valued, respected and included. When this happens, they don't feel the need to push back and be argumentative or defensive. They start to trust you. And when they trust you, the foundation for a sincere relationship is set.
  2. Your perspective of your conversation partner shifts. Instead of trying to prove you're higher than they are on the totem pole of knowledge and experience, you see them at least as an equal, because you recognize that they have information of value, just like you. It's difficult to discriminate or be rude to someone you see as on par with yourself.
  3. Your conversation partner sees you as curious. Curiosity is associated with intelligence, so they also see you as smarter. And people generally want to talk to smart people, because then they feel more intelligent themselves.

5 strategies for better conversations

Listening to learn requires patience. And from a linguistic standpoint, it means asking and answering a ton more questions. Bruce Kasanoff, author and LinkedIn Influencer, has three big tips in this area:

  • Repeat each question in a casual way before you answer it. Paraphrasing gives your partner a chance to verify what they want to know, which keeps you on topic.
  • Formulate your answer only after the other person has finished talking. Embrace the silence that happens as you think. Your partner isn't going to care about the pause if you give a thoughtful answer that demonstrates respect.
  • Don't evade tough questions. It's OK to say you don't know, are still investigating or even that you'll get back with an answer. Trying to respond with ambiguous generalizations is not.

To Kasanoff's tips, I personally would add these strategies:

  • Use as many open-ended questions as you can. "Yes" or "No" can be truthful answers, but they don't come anywhere close to giving you the "why" behind your given topic. Subsequently, you're not getting a sense of your conversation partner's motivations, preferences and personality.
  • Take the time to figure formulate your inquiry well, because the wrong question will access different data that, while not necessarily useless, isn't what you wanted to know.

It's not just for new people you meet

Most people think of improving conversation as a way to break the ice and extend their network, such as getting to know other professionals at a conference or even interacting with potential customers. For example, you might ask questions like "How long have you been doing x?" or "What does your company do?"

But listening as a learner matters for professionals and clients you already know, too! It lets you demonstrate you still find the other person interesting and get something meaningful from interacting with them. With these individuals you're closer to, ask questions such as

  • "Why does that make you feel [happy, anxious, sad, etc.]?"
  • "What do you think about...?"
  • "What was that experience like?"
  • "What would you like to do with..."
  • "What do you need to..."

The only real rule here is that, no matter what question you ask, you strive to get a clearer picture of your partner's perspective and what's formulated it. Even when you're close, don't assume you know how they're going to reply.

Great leaders understand they don't know everything. They  constantly seek out knowledge and to improve themselves through it. That said, you probably have dozens of conversations every day. Each one of them is a chance to discover something new, build yourself, build your relationships and, subsequently, build your business. So go ahead. Push past the (very normal) shyness and anxiety. Go say hello. The takeaways will be endless.

Published on: Nov 6, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.