The Single Most Important Conversation Skill
by Gordon Hawkes
There is one skill that is essential for good conversation. Without this skill, conversation would not even be possible.
Everyone thinks it’s very important that others possess this skill, but surprisingly few people possess it themselves.
It is the single most important skill for good conversation.
What is this skill?
Listening is the first and most important skill to learn if you want to become an effective ambassador for Christ in your everyday conversations. And I’m not referring to just giving the appearance of listening. I mean real, genuine, careful listening.
If you have all the knowledge in the world, and all the clever tactics—and if you can speak with the tongues of angels—but you don’t listen?
Well, all the knowledge and wit and cleverness will count for very little in winning over the person you’re talking to.
Why is listening so important?
1. Listening shows respect
When you listen to someone, especially when you’re discussing matters of faith, you send the message that they matter and that you take what they have to say seriously. Even if they walk away disagreeing with you, they walk away knowing that you respect them.
By being “quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:19), you show that the person in front of you is more important than hearing your own voice. You put them first.
This will often make them more inclined to listen to you, as well.
2. Listening allows you to understand the person you’re talking with
Too often we talk past each other on topics like religion and morality. Why? Because we don’t listen to understand the other person. Instead, we merely wait to talk, ready to pounce when an opportunity to speak arises.
Solomon said, “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame” (Prov. 18:13). It should be clear why it’s foolish: How can you understand where someone is coming from, or what they’re even asking, if you haven’t first listened to them?
Over the course of 30 years, Francis Schaeffer welcomed countless visitors into his home in Huemoz, Switzerland. Some were spiritual seekers, others skeptics, and others still were committed Christians. Some were intellectually confused, others had deep emotional wounds from their treatment by the church. Some were hostile; some were open. But in each case, Schaeffer would spend long hours listening to them in order to understand.
He would say, “If I have only an hour with someone, I will spend the first 55 minutes asking questions and finding out what is troubling their heart and mind, and then in the last 5 minutes I will share something of the truth.” He would still speak the truth and share his mind, but only after long and careful listening.
3. Being a good listener can transform a touchy subject into an enjoyable conversation
There are certain topics that have the potential to generate a lot of tension between people who disagree. Religion and morality fit squarely into that category. Evolution? Sexuality? Abortion? Probably not the topics you’d want to bring up at Christmas dinner with your relatives who take the opposite side.
But by simply being a good listener—by asking questions and then listening, rather than just waiting to say your piece—you can defuse the tension that otherwise might arise.
There’s no guarantee, but more often than not, if you listen and seek to understand first, you will be able to think of more thoughtful questions to ask, and your conversation partner will feel respected and understood—two things that tend to put people in a better mood.
* * * * *
At the end of the day, you can’t go wrong by listening well. Even if you have nothing to say in a conversation, the other person walks away feeling respected, you understand them better, and chances are they found the conversation enjoyable. If you want to be an effective ambassador for Christ in everyday conversations, you need to start with being a good listener.