My good friend Ashley Boroda, a stand-up comedian, scriptwriter & agent once told me of a gig he did years ago in a smokey basement club in London. It seemed to go pretty well – plenty of laughs and a great atmosphere – but during the performance one thing had unsettled him.
Throughout the whole set he had noticed a large man stood at the back, his arms folded and wearing a very serious expression. “Why wasn’t I getting through to him?” Ashley thought. A while later this same man, face fixed in the same position, walked across the room towards Ashley. My friend braced himself.
“Really enjoyed that, mate. Nice one,” said the man.
Now Ashley’s a funny guy and of course there are plenty of people who speak in a manner that thoroughly deserves a blank expression from the listener! But it’s also true that many people just don’t react to whatever is said; they’re poor listeners because they’re not giving the feedback people need to relax and open up.
Think about it – how does it feel when you get no reaction from the person you’re talking to? You might be in an interview or a networking conversation and you’re getting the kind of blank expression that poker players favour – like the dastardly Lechiffre in the Casino Royale Bond movie.
You might say, “Ah that’s the point, I want to test someone, unsettle them and see how they respond.” Well, if that’s your intention, fine. But for the most part non-reactive listening simply makes a conversation dry up. If the purpose of an exchange is to get people to open up, find common ground and maybe build a relationship it helps neither party.
The listener’s reaction is the vital feedback you need to see how you’re doing when you’re talking. It tells you if they’re getting it, liking it, disagreeing with you, or getting confused. It gives you the indicators you need to either continue in the same vein or change tack.
If you’ve had some training in listening skills you’ll know that it’s very much an active thing, not at all a matter of standing back and soaking up what’s thrown at you. Great listeners are actively engaged in the conversation, nodding, uumming, asking questions, making facial gestures and summarising what they think. Listening deeply is hard work.
So why are some people failing to listen in this way? It’s largely because they never get any feedback on their lack of feedback! That’s why it’s worth swallowing some pride and asking people to assess your performance as a listener. Get some professional help through some role plays and watch how good (and poor) listeners perform in real life.
Developing great listening skills and dumping the poker face will help you get better material from your conversational partner. It takes a bit of practice of course – at first it will feel unnatural and can appear forced and inauthentic. But after a while people will feel more encouraged when they talk to you; they’ll start to trust you and confide in you, the bedrock of solid, long-lasting relationships.