Listening is overrated. Most of us want to be good listeners. We are often told it is one of the most important skills that any of us can have. People confide in good listeners. They are trusted more often. Yet here is a question that we usually never ask:
What does a good listener actually do?
If you think that good listeners are the people who spend more time silently listening and letting others talk more often, you’d be wrong. One of the first skills anyone who has studied psychiatry or counseling learns is the art of active listening. Active listening requires you to not remain silent as a listener.
Instead, you are taught to ask probing questions. You reflect back what you hear people say so they might hear and digest their own thoughts. And you find the right balance to actively … interrupt.
That’s right—interrupting can be a skill, just like listening.
Just as we think of listening as an always positive force, we often think of interrupting as a negative one.
People who interrupt are usually the ones who put themselves first. They go through a conversation not really listening, but thinking about the next thing they can say.
If you consider listening and interrupting as two opposite sides of the same skill — learning how to actively listen is just as important as learning how to actively interrupt.
If you spend an entire conversation nodding along as someone else talks, you aren’t adding anything to the conversation. If, on the other hand, you spend the entire conversation interrupting, you have the same problem.
So how do you learn to actively listen AND actively interrupt?
Here are three tips that might help:
- Interrupt with questions. The negative side of interrupting usually comes from that situation when you have something you just can’t wait to share. If you interrupt with a question instead, you are giving the other person a chance to continue sharing something with you, but you can be a more active part of the discussion.
- Connect with an interjection. An interjection is a useful way to interrupt with a personal point while still letting the conversation continue. If, for example, someone mentions having worked in Australia—sometimes I will share that I lived there for five years and loved it, and then invite them to continue sharing their story. The result is that the conversation can continue, but now we have a shared connection to Australia that we might talk about later.
- Share an action. Sometimes a conversation will spark an item to add to your mental to-do list. Those can be perfect thoughts to share as a way of taking a conversation to the next step. It can also offer you a polite way to interrupt a conversation that you may need to continue later for some personal or timing reason.
No matter which of these lessons you might use, it’s important to remember that interrupting is something of an art. When you do it badly, you can alienate others and kill great conversations. When you do it well, not only will your conversation skills stand out—but you’ll also have better conversations with just about anyone as a result.