For me, listening either comes easily or it doesn’t come at all. And the context doesn’t seem to matter. I could be meeting someone interesting for coffee, trying to sell an idea or service over the phone, or talking to one of my best friends about a topic that I’m passionate about. Regardless of the scenario, I’m haunted by waves of linguistic disorientation.
To sell well, I had to do three things: Ask questions, shut up and listen, then repeat the answers back.
I love this advice, but the bit about repeating the answers back makes me wince when I think about applying it to my own conversations. I’m not always in control of my ability to listen effectively.
When I find myself at the beginning of a typical conversation, I’ll lead with a question, repeat the answer, respond to a related question, so on and so forth. As the thick sludge in my mind warms, thoughts and connections come quickly. “Mm, yes, this is going well,” I tell myself.
And then it happens.
I can hear individual words in the air, but I don’t understand how they relate to one another. The quick succession of seemingly unrelated units of language causes a mental spasm, which, if I weren’t trying to have a conversation, might actually feel nice. I fight the urge to slip into the lazy river of distraction.
While I struggle to assemble meaning, my conversation partner moves on. Do they know that I’m no longer with them? Surely they’ve noticed the glassy look in my eyes that says, “sorry, I’m thinking about my phone right now.”
And then there’s silence…
They’ve stopped talking. I have no idea what they said. Now they’re looking at me and waiting for a response, which is a reasonable expectation considering that I’ve been an attentive conversation partner up until 30 seconds ago.
To the person I’m having a conversation with, my lack of attention might make it seem that I’ve lost interest in the conversation, but the truth is that I’ve lost the ability to decipher language. It feels like the words are intentionally evading my ability to understand them.
I’ve struggled with these states of confusion my entire life. When I’m alone, I embrace the bewilderment. It feels good. So good that it’s almost worth a lifetime of half-grokked conversations.
Yet as a writer and person who enjoys connecting through conversation, I’ve had to experiment with different methods for recovering conversations from the brink of distraction. Here’s what I’ve found works best for me:
Record the conversation
I regularly record phone calls and the results are fucking magical. Once the call is over, I transfer the audio to my computer and play it back at a slower speed in VLC Media Player where I can transcribe all or some of the conversation. This is similar to how you might log interview tape for a podcast.
When the conversation is in real life, I use my phone’s voice recorder or my Zoom field recorder.
How you choose to disclose your recording is up to you and depends on the context of the situation. Google it.
Even when I didn’t zone out during a conversation, listening back and transcribing the audio always (always, always, always) leads me to uncovering information that I initially missed. This practice will be eye-opening for attention-lacking and attention-rich listeners alike.
Ask for a time-out
I start to panic whenever I feel myself getting distracted, and panic leads to further confusion and distraction, and then I’m done for. So before I get lost (especially if I’m not recording), I’ll ask my conversation buddy to pause so I can let the panic pass and get back on track.
I’ve found that this method goes over really well when it’s framed right (and terribly when it’s not). I’m not just asking for a pause, but for a rewind and clarification.
Accompanied by a mildly self-deprecating chuckle, these time-out requests offer me an empathic way to keep my conversations on track.
Allow room for silence
If I’m not recording and have also missed my time-out window, my last best option is to sit in silence for a moment. I’ll try to let the panic and confusion pass, perhaps revealing a bit of meaning that I can use to move forward with.
If the silence leads to absolutely no thoughts at all (this is common for me) and my conversation partner is starting to look annoyed, I’ll gather my belongings, toss a crisp five-dollar bill on the table, and leave without saying goodbye. The conversation was probably boring anyways. 😎