Talking is the least important half of any conversation. Listening is the real skill. Listening for what is being said, what is being omitted and what's being given a "spin."
You won't get what you need from any conversation unless you know how to listen correctly -- and know what to listen for. Questions, properly used, draw out what you need to hear. But they will be useless unless you listen closely enough to catch what people are telling you.
Here are some crucial guidelines for listening: what to listen for and how to make sure you don't miss it.
1. STAY IN THE MOMENT
Don't allow your attention to drift. Don't let your mind run ahead, preparing the next question or anticipating the flow of conversation. Stay right here. This is where the action is. Don't miss it.
2. DON'T FEAR PAUSES
Many people are afraid they'll look stupid if there's a pause while they consider what to say next, so they tune out part way through the answer to start preparing.
Listening to the answer is far more vital than having the next comment ready as soon as the other person draws breath. Thought is much faster than speech. It may feel as if minutes pass while you get your next question ready, but it will be a few seconds at most; a few seconds in which the person you're talking with will see you have truly listened.
Which will best encourage openness: being slick with the next question or showing you truly listened to the last answer?
3. LISTEN TO "WHAT," THEN "HOW" AND LASTLY "WHY"
Always listen in this order. Get the basic facts clear first (the "what"), then move on to see how they fit together (the "how"). Lastly, try to understand why -- the motives, thoughts and intentions behind the actions and behaviors.
Listening like this will show you right away where essential parts of the story are missing, so you can ask a question to draw them out.
4. WATCH FOR PATTERNS
Patterns are the most revealing elements in any person's story: patterns or action, patterns of choices, patterns of responses to others. Any specific action may be no more than chance. We all make bad choices and take wrong turns. None of that is specially important. But if there is a pattern of bad decisions -- or a pattern of good, courageous ones -- that suggests a recurring trait that will apply in the future as much as it has in the past.
I can't tell you how to do this. Some people seem almost incapable of noting patterns, even after you've pointed them out. It's all about spotting links between seemingly disconnected topics; the kind of links you get in a good mystery novel where the detective pieces all the clues together into an unanswerable proof of guilt.
What I can suggest is that you practice. Like all skills, practice will improve your performance. The more practice you have, the easier it will be, until you can do it in real time.
5. DON'T MAKE NOTES OBSESSIVELY
Taking notes is good practice, just so long as it doesn't interfere with the natural flow of the discussion. Don't allow long pauses while you break eye-contact to scribble on your pad.
The simplest suggestion is to note just a word or two and fill in the blanks immediately after the interview when the detail is still fresh in your mind. Don't assume you'll remember what "toes" meant when twenty-four hours have passed.
6. WATCH FOR EYE AND BODY MOVEMENTS
We communicate in many ways beyond words. But don't fall for pop-psychology interpretations of body language. Shifting in the seat may mean anxiety about some deception. But it may also mean the other person is too hot, too cold, or needs the bathroom.
There is never a simple, perfect "interpretation" of so-called body language. It's best to see it for what it is: a sign that something is going on that might demand your attention. Use it as a wake-up signal and you won't go wrong.
7. NEVER ARGUE OR GET EMOTIONAL
Whatever the other person says in a formal conversation, however much you disagree or loathe what's being said, never, never rise to the bait. Be respectful, without implying agreement or disagreement. Keep your attention alert and your mind open. You have a job to do, not a debate to win. Getting into an argument will interfere with your purpose.
8. LISTEN FOR TONE AND CHOICE OF WORDS
One of the least conscious parts of speaking is the tone we use: relaxed, tight, anxious, angry. Listening to the tone can alert you to meanings far beyond the literal interpretation of the words used.
Does the other person sound at ease? Tense? Uncertain? Angry? Sad? What might this suggest? Does it form a pattern?
Our choice of words can sometimes be a giveaway too. Especially if that choice results in using emotional or judgmental words.
If I say a customer is "demanding," that's an objective outlook. If I use words like "awkward," "nasty," "deceitful," "dishonest," or "bloody-minded," I am being judgmental and revealing my emotions as well. Which tells you more about my attitude?
Just remember not to over-react to a single instance. Maybe that customer was dishonest. It happens. Look for patterns that suggest a fixed attitude.
9. REMEMBER YOU'RE HEARING A STORY
Listen for the ebb and flow; the big themes and central ideas. Ask yourself: "What's this story all about? How has it developed? Where's it going?" Don't concentrate on isolated facts. Look for the patterns and how they fit together to form the story of that person's life to date.
Nothing is more disarming than a smile. Nothing better conveys interest and respect. With so much going on in your head -- asking questions, listening to the answers with rapt attention -- it's easy to come across as stuffy and miserable. Smile. Relax.
You have plenty of time and this person in front of you is really very interesting. Never hurry. Wait until you are sure the other person has said all there is to be said. Those silences while you wait to see if there's more to come are your most powerful technique. Most people cannot resist filling them -- often with all the things they knew they ought not to mention.
Smile. Relax. Wait. It will all come pouring out.
Adrian W. Savage writes for people who want help with the daily dilemmas they face at work. He has contributed more than 25 articles to leading British and American publications and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Chicago Tribune.
Visit his blog on the ups and downs of business life.