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The Art of Conversation - Part 5: Active Listening

By John McManamy

I was one year out of law school. Very improbably, I had landed a senior editorial position as a financial journalist. I knew nothing about finance. I knew nothing about journalism. Moreover, I was a slow study.

Believe it or not, all this worked to my advantage in my job interview. I did very little talking. I had nothing to show off, so I didn't come across as a smarty-pants.

Instead, my interviewer interpreted my quiet demeanor as a sign of even temperament (ha!) and professionalism. The next day he called with a job offer.

Silence is golden.

But it was only a matter of time before my employer would realize I was a flat-out impostor. My goal was to delay the inevitable for a year. In the meantime, I had to live off my wits.

One of my first assignments was to interview a prominent tax accountant. We settled into his well-appointed office, with a spectacular view of the harbor. I pulled out my notebook. It was time to pretend I was a journalist.

The success or failure of my interview, I knew, was riding on my ability to listen. In essence, to respond to my subject's remarks in a way that would move the conversation forward. I didn't know it at the time, but this is what the experts call "active listening."

Active listening works something like this: If the accountant I was interviewing were to say something like, "tax policy needs to be based on fairness and equity," I needed to reply with something like: "Do you think the tax laws are fair right now?"

We weren't too far into the conversation when I predictably became totally lost and confused. Words and phrases such as "amortization" and "zero-based budgeting" have a way of doing that to you.

Fortunately, I was the beneficiary of beginner's luck. "Let me see if I got this right," I recalled interjecting. Then I attempted to restate my subject's point, but in my own words.

Apparently, restating - reframing, interpreting, reflecting - is a cardinal principle of active listening. The interviewer benefits from getting the facts right. The interviewee benefits from the reassurance that he or she is not talking to a brick wall. Journalists use the technique all the time. So do psychologists, teachers, sales people, and anyone involved in the "people" professions.

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