Hey! Are you LISTENING to me?

Perhaps it’s just me, but the pandemic has affected my ability (and desire) to socialise. I find small talk more difficult, eye contact more intense, and engagement more exhausting. So I’m having to work harder when it comes to conversations with clients, colleagues and friends.

How about you? Is it business as usual – or are you inter-personally burnt out?

Either way, whether talking to someone energises you or makes you want to stab yourself in the ear with a pencil, you may be interested in the secrets of the “strategic conversation”.

For starters, a strategic conversation is an intentional one; one that builds rapport, two-way credibility, and ultimately, a relationship. It’s based on your having shown an interest in the other person’s world, their experiences, and what they might be interested in. I have 5 tips.

1. Make it about them.

Here’s a simple truth: Most people love to talk about themselves. So if you can pay them a genuine compliment, give positive feedback or ask open-ended questions, that’ll be a great start. Great conversationalists have a sincere curiosity about other people, notice the little things, and use these details to start and fuel strategic conversations.

2. Make eye contact.

I know, I know. This one is hard. But eye contact, especially when you have the relative novelty of being face-to-face, makes the other person feel that they have your full and undivided attention. You can look away every now and then; don’t do an Elizabeth Holmes.

3. Don’t wait for the gap.

Think of the shitty conversationalists you’ve had the displeasure of chatting to. I had lunch with one recently; it was loooong. And all about her. You know the type… You can usually see them nodding along as you speak, thinking about what they want to say next.

Become aware of this during your own conversations, and when you find your mind moving towards a response, stop and force yourself to listen fully. Not easy, especially if you’re super-talkative, like me. But doable, once you become aware of the tendency.

4. Be ready to paraphrase.

The literal definition of paraphrasing is “to summarise a message with fewer words”. This active listening technique does two things:

  1. It tells the speaker that you’re actually listening attentively.
  2. It helps you confirm your understanding of the message.

Paraphrasing can sound like this:

  • “So you’re saying that…”
  • “Am I correct in saying that you’re concerned because…”
  • “Can I take a minute to tell you what I understand so far?”

If you paraphrase something that’s not along the lines of their message, hopefully the speaker will explain it again or re-state it.

5. Use listening signals.

As an active listener, most of your words can be short interjections of agreement. “Hm”, “Yes”, “Uh huh”, “Okay”, “Seriously?” All you need to do is to communicate that you’re still engaged – especially if the listening is happening over the phone. And if you’re on a virtual call, nod, smile, and use your facial expressions and hands to indicate that you’re following.

At this point I feel it’s only fair to confess that I’m typing this as I sit at the hairdresser. I find that one of the most effective ways to avoid small talk – especially a) in the presence of a loud hairdryer and b) with both of us wearing face masks – is to work on my laptop.

Do as I say, not as I do 😉 Actually, do whatever you like. This year’s been hard enough.