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The Importance of Actually Listening While People are Talking

January 29, 2012

I must confess it—lately I’ve been reading from Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People. There, I’ve said it. Now everyone reading this post can judge me for my obvious lack of social skills.

In the past I had been skeptical of Dale Carnegie’s works, mainly because I suspected them to be the usual lot of sappy, Chicken Soup for The Soul self-help nonsense. I’m skeptical of anything that promises to change your life in 6 easy steps or your money back. How To Win Friends and Influence People sounded like a guide to manipulation, which is something I abhor. And then I read from the book.

How To Win Friends and Influence People, from the parts I have read, (I haven’t read the entire book yet) is not about manipulating people to your own ends, but instead about how to treat people like they’re important. This is something that I really have a problem with. Those of us who are Presbyterians by temperament have problems treating others like they’re important. I tend to automatically dismiss people based on their interests (or lack of) and not treat them like they are important. “You don’t appreciate the difference between Delta Spirit and The Shins? Forget you!” (ADHD moment: judging people by the music they listen to is one of the most immature things you can do.) Sometimes I find it hard to summon up a genuine interest in other people. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it.

The parts that I read from How To Win Friends and Influence People coincided with a problem that has come to my mind in recent weeks: instead of listening to people, I just wait for my turn to talk. I don’t seriously consider what other people have to say. Instead, I just wait for the opportunity to say something that I think will make everyone else think that I’m clever or funny. This ends up turning conversations from genuine dialog into a circus act—watch me demonstrate my awesomeness.

How most conversations end up.

The problem with this is that unless your name is Drake, no one wants to listen to you talk about yourself. Even people who constantly talk about themselves and seem popular eventually wear out their welcome. Continually talking about yourself shows a low view of other people. (ADHD Moment: people with low views of other people tend to have low views of themselves too.) It’s a lack of humility and a lack of manners. In an ideal conversation no one person dominates the conversation, but instead everyone contributes something.

This is how people feel when you aren't genuinely interested in what they have to say.

Some of the points Carnegie makes in his book are “Become genuinely interested in other people,” “Be a good listener. Encourage people to talk about themselves,” “Talk in terms of the other person’s interest,” and “Make the other person feel important—and do it sincerely.” This is actually quite the opposite of manipulation. When you manipulate someone, you don’t care about what they think. You simply want to bend them to your will. But when you become genuinely interested in someone, you don’t try to bend them to your will. Instead, you end up sympathizing and identifying with their interests. Instead of selfishly talking about yourself, you end up learning about the other people. It reminds me of that quote from The Matrix: “It’s not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.” (Yeah, I know that was corny. Bear with me.) The only way to truly influence people is to change yourself, not in a false or manipulative way, but making yourself a more friendly person.

I think there’s a spiritual component to this as well. When Jesus was on the earth, he was around people who were far below him. He could have been incarnated in any century he wished. He could have come to earth as a king and conversed with the scientists, philosophers, and politicians of his day. He did not. Instead, he came to a backwater province in the Roman empire and was friends with fishers, carpenters and tax collectors. I’m sure there were times when Peter kept on ranting about something or John brought up the same thing that he did at every conversation or Matthew kept asking annoying questions. But Jesus did not dismiss the disciples because they were “beneath him.” Instead, Jesus had a genuine interest in them. And if the Son of God could have a genuine interest in the disciples, how much more are we required to have a genuine interest in our fellow man?

This is how people feel if you're genuinely interested in what they have to say.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2012 2:05 am

    This is a very moving post, Nick. When I graduated from high school, like every other kid in the northeast Texas area, I received a copy of HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE from the legendary Congressman Wright Patman. Even though I was a reader, I never read the book through and never internalized the message. I have paid a big price for such neglect. Glad that you are wisely pursuing and thinking through such works and ideas.

  2. Toni permalink
    January 30, 2012 12:52 pm

    Consider the man your PaPa is. He read this book, and I think he sought to do just what you are talking about. Jesus is our prime example, and others are a reflection (or not) of Him. Those people who really matter to us are the ones who listen to us. In order to be that kind of person, you must
    listen to others and put into practice what you have learned. I’m glad you shared this part of your journey to becoming more Christ-like.

  3. Katy permalink
    January 30, 2012 4:42 pm

    WOW! Excellent! I, too, am glad you shared this profound lesson you are learning. “Continually talking about yourself shows a low view of other people…It’s a lack of humility and a lack of manners…” I DID talk about this in the Etiquette Class in High School. 😉 I like the point you made about Jesus having a genuine interest in His disciples (no matter how annoying or ridiculous they were). Perfect example. And I loved the pictures you threw in for levity. You are a great writer, Nick. Keep it up!

    • January 30, 2012 10:24 pm

      Thanks a lot. I actually wrote this post up in about ten minutes, so I’m glad you like it. Yes, you did talk about this in Etiquette Class. I should have payed more attention.

  4. David L. permalink
    February 4, 2012 5:47 pm

    In my view, your most insightful post ever.

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