Listening 101: The Key to Creating Unforgettable Conversations

You’re out to dinner with your significant other’s parents. You’re meeting them for the first time. You need to make a good first impression. But what are you going to talk about? What should you ask them about? How will you know if you’re talking too much? Or not enough? 

Meeting the parents can be intimidating. In fact, anytime you want to make a great first impression can feel intimidating. Maybe your promotion depends on an upcoming meeting with an executive, or maybe you’re going on a first date with someone you met online. Regardless of the situation, the pressure from needing to nail that first impression can lead to self-sabotage.


“We are in an era right now where there’s a lot of broadcasting and not a lot of receiving.” – Panos A. Panay

First, the pressure leads to feelings of nervousness. And when we’re nervous in a conversation we feel compelled to talk too much. This can happen in response to being asked a question, but it can also happen after someone gets done talking and there’s a period of silence. Silence in a conversation can be uncomfortable. And if you don’t know how to handle it, you can end up rambling just to fill the silence.

So, how would you make a good first impression in the “meeting the parents” example?

Making eye contact and smiling are great first steps!

But beyond that – show interest in who you’re speaking to. 

Start by asking some basic questions. Then convey you care about their responses by paying attention. Finally, relate to what they said and ask another question.

Rinse and repeat.

Example question: “Mr. Smith, Alex told me you had a fascinating career working for the city. What were some of the highlights?”

Mr. Smith smiles proudly at Alex before launching off into a dad story about some shenanigans.

During the story, you’ll want to pay attention. Specifically you’ll want to listen for moments in the story when Mr. Smith seems particularly proud or emotionally expressive. Those are the emotional bids, which give you topics to ask about.

“Everything you need for great conversation lies in the other person if you just take a moment to listen to what they have to say.” – Johnny Dzubak

For example, Mr. Smith might be in the middle of his story when he says, “…and then there was Frank, my supervisor. What a guy! I wouldn’t have made it this far without him. So one day, Frank and I…”

Whoever this Frank is, it sounds like Mr. Smith holds him in high regard. Make a mental note to ask about him but keep paying attention.

So, you’ve shown interest by asking a question and listening to what he has to say. You’ve made a mental note or two on particular moments he seems proud of. Now it’s time to relate!

“What a great story! I see where Alex gets such a strong work ethic. The way you talked about Frank reminded me of an old coworker of mine, Lilly. She was a great mentor and I was lucky to be on a team with her. She showed me the ropes when I was getting started and introduced me to the right people along the way. What was it about Frank that helped you achieve your success?”

In that one thought, you:

  • Gave Mr. Smith approval for his story (hey, no matter how big & tough some of us act, we still like to have our experiences validated) 
  • Showed you were paying attention by recalling a specific detail from his story
  • Opened up to him and showed him you two share the similar experience of a positive mentor which gives him several topics to ask you about (current profession, career history, mentor experience, interests, goals, etc…)
  • Concluded the thought by asking another question

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the thought, “What am I going to talk about?” when meeting someone for the first time. But conversations have to start somewhere, and even the best conversationalists will state that they don’t always start smoothly. The key is to start simple and then listen.

If you convey enough genuine interest in who you’re speaking with, they’ll eventually ask you a question in return and voila! Now you’re having a conversation and you have the ability to steer it based on your responses to their questions and the questions you ask in return! 

People tend to shoot themselves in the foot by asking questions and then thinking about what to say next while the other person is speaking. In theory, this sounds like an “efficient” use of time because you then have time to think about the perfect question while the other person is answering your first question. But in reality, their response has everything you need to make a fun, engaging conversation.

Now go out there, ask questions, and start listening!

If you want to learn more about the importance of listening, check out our latest podcast where we discuss the power of listening and how to spark your creativity!

Rick Ahlgren - author of 16 posts on The Art of Charm

Rick is a 35-year-old human who spends his time freelancing as a writer, deadlifting (with his scrawny high school physique), and performing odd jobs for friends. He takes satisfaction from helping humans become more aware and better at life, which means he has to know what he's talking about for him to be able to help others. Rick enjoys long walks and bike rides because they help him slow down and pay attention to the details of this crazy ride we call life. And he digs reading fantasy like George R.R. Martin and science fiction like Frank Herbert and Alastair Reynolds. Sometimes when Rick finds himself staring into space without any distractions, he'll ask himself "What am I doing?" Usually the answer is nothing.


in Building A Connection, Making Friends, Networking

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