Listening vs. sharing

“That’s another good question…you ask good questions…What percent of conversations would you estimate that you share more than you listen?”

I smiled at the question, asked astutely by a new acquaintance that I’d been chatting with in Madison Square Park for the last 40 or so minutes. And by chatting, I mean, me asking many questions and listening to his story, his career path, his background, and his current goals.

This is a very typical conversational flow for me. Particularly with new work and professional connections, I tend to do most of the asking. So although nobody had asked me that question directly before, I had the answer ready in my head, where I’d been noticing it for quite some time.

“10%.” I paused. “What about you?”

“Yeah, about the same.”

I felt the sudden need to explain myself. “I’ve noticed most people like it,” I continued, “talking about themselves.”

Here’s my theory: We are so rarely afford the opportunity to share and to be heard that I’ve found people truly enjoy the chance to tell their story to a rapt and attentive listener. The art of thoughtful and progressive question-asking is uncommon. It’s something I’ve always done well, then honed through both my training as a journalist and in my highly networked current role. It’s also the best way to learn — hearing other people’s stories. And so, to many people (strangers, friends, and professional acquaintances alike), that is the role I take on.

It can catch people off-guard, to be sure. And I’ve had to apologize more than a few times for coming off a little too strong in my “interrogation” questioning style, particularly with people I meet for the very first time. But by and large, I’ve noticed that people leave conversations where they share more than they talk with a weight off their shoulders — a feeling of lightness and levity. It’s therapeutic to talk through questions, challenges, problems, and reflections. It makes me feel good to know I gave people that chance. So they leave feeling better about themselves. And I leave with a ton of new information and stories. Win-win, right?

It used to surprise me more that people didn’t ask me more questions. How I could sometimes be at a dinner party full of people from another industry and not have a single person ask what I do professionally. Or how few people come into one-hour meetings prepared to ask questions they would like me to answer. Once I was out for lunch with a friend talking about her business and it wasn’t until the check was placed on the table that she asked how things were going for me lately. Once I got to minute 55 of a one-hour meeting before the other person bothered to ask, “So what’s the scope of your job at USV?”

I used to interpret these acts as a feeling of disinterest in me as a human, which would upset me a little. And while that may be true in some cases (particularly with more aggressive or sales-person-like personalities that I occasionally encounter), I find that in general, there’s no malice intended. It’s likely a combination of other factors: Intimidation, lack of self-awareness, mismatched expectations, or often, simply the cathartic satisfaction of getting caught up in telling their own story.

Now I realize that it’s a welcome gift to recognize which people in my lives approach our dialogues differently. For the people who do ask questions, this is a welcome treat. The conversations with my closest friends, colleagues, and family members are much more 50–50 in terms of listening and sharing. And on the super rare situation where somebody I encounter who manages to get me into a conversation where I’m suddenly sharing more than I’m listening (honestly something that makes me uncomfortable, given how infrequently I do it), that’s a good sign that I should find time to spend with that person again.

The flip side of this of course is something my new friend yesterday also pointed out: That if you’re always the one asking questions, you’re not practicing vulnerability. I’ve thought about this too. It’s a delicate balance for sure. And while I’m certainly happy to share, I don’t like to launch into long-winded stories about my personal life, completely unprompted before I know whether or not somebody actually cares. Which is part of why I’d rather do that in writing. It’s here if you want it.

So whether you tend to fall on the side of listener vs. sharer in your conversations, I encourage you to ask one more question today than you might do otherwise. You might be surprised by what comes out of it.