Friendship, Listening, and Empathy: A Prayer GuideTwo Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian LifeSabbath Keeping FastingA Renewed SpiritualityNurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First CenturyThe Power of ListeningJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationPersonality Type in CongregationsPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathFriendingA Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthDeath in Dunedin: A NovelDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelBeating Burnout in CongregationsReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeAdvent DevotionalDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

Good listening is not enough to make a good conversation

Lynne Baab • Sunday October 18 2015

Good listening is not enough to make a good conversation

After four years of focusing a lot of my pondering and writing on good listening skills, I was quite struck by these biting words from broadcast journalist Barbara Walters in her 1970 book, How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything:  

I happen to disagree with the well-entrenched theory that the art of conversation is merely the art of being a good listener. Such advice invites people to be cynical with one another and full of fake; when a conversation becomes a monologue, poked along with tiny cattle-prod questions, it isn’t a conversation any more. It is a strained, manipulative game, tiring and perhaps even lonely. Maybe the person doing the talking enjoys himself at the time, but I suspect he’ll have uncomfortable afterthoughts about it; certainly his audience has had a cheerless time.

A conversation, even a brief one, should have all the best features of any functioning human relationships, and that means genuine interest on both sides, opportunity and respect for both to express themselves, and some dashes of tact and perception. Conversation can be such pleasure that it is criminal to exchange comments so stale that neither really listens.

She does acknowledge that sometimes all we can do is listen:

There are painful, tedious people in abundance and some of them must be suffered kindly, maybe even until they run down and have nothing more to say. . . .  Furthermore, warm, sustaining relationships become especially important during those periods when we are our least lovable. People bursting with good will and abundance of mental health are charming company; their need for ego-boosting, however, is minimal. People sinking into self-pity and depression are dreary, but they can’t get out of it by themselves. So every now and then, just sit there and listen, listen, listen. You’re paying your membership dues in the human race. . . .

When you’re with someone who has had a recent loss, and who wants to talk of nothing else, you’re going to have to compose yourself for patient, sympathetic listening. Life isn’t easy; every conversation can’t be a joy. And in later years, he’ll remember gratefully that you listened when he needed you most.

All grief is not for the dead. People show the same symptoms of grief — lassitude, preoccupation with one topic, a general grayness — when they have been through mutilating surgery, or when a marriage or a love affair ends before they were ready, or when they’ve just moved from a place where they lived long and happily, or when their self-esteem has been punctured by the loss of a job or failure to be chosen for an expected honor.

Be tender; let them tell you how rotten they feel, and what a lousy world this is. Don’t argue and try to point out that they have no problems. Sometimes as with teenagers just sympathetically saying, “I know, I know,” helps.

Walters evidently would agree with me that having excellent listening skills in your communication tool box is a great idea if you want to show love to people around you, especially when they are suffering from loss. I wonder if sometimes I focus more on listening and less on conversation because I assume that most people are grieving something most of the time, and my job is to help them talk that through. Therefore I default into drawing people out and listening carefully rather than trying to assure my conversations are truly conversations, as she describes in the first two paragraphs I quoted. 

I’d love to hear comments from readers of this post: How do you know when to stop drawing others out by mostly listening and instead engage in back-and-forth conversation? And what do you think are the components of a good conversation? What can we do to nurture good conversations?

(If you’d like to receive an email whenever I post on this blog, sing up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. I am grateful for two posts on the blog “Brain Pickings” that drew my attention to Barbara Walters’s book and to these particularly quotations, here and here).


Here's a complete list of all the posts on listening on my blog. Maybe one of these posts will interest you:

An amusing story of hearing God’s guidance
Listening to creation as a part of environmental stewardship

John Perkins listened 
good listeners are detectives, not tennis players

a game that nurtures good listening
receptivity and listening
humility and listening
humility and listening part 2
listening wisely to people’s stories
my journey as a listener
why do we listen?
letting go of agendas as we listen
hearing God’s voice
an amusing story of why listening matters
“holy curiosity" as a way to think about effective listening
the role of listening in nurturing Christian discipleship
listening and hospitality

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