Don’t interrupt, finish a sentence, or rush the other person’s thoughts. This indicates that you don’t have time for them or care about what they have to say on the subject at hand. It’s also rude and insensitive. If, on the other hand, you have someone who doesn’t stop to take a breath, finish a thought, or allow a break in the conversation for you to interject, then by all means interrupt, or you’ll have a monologue rather than a dialogue.
Focus on the person, don’t let your eyes wander around the room. Ever go to a restaurant with televisions adorning the walls with soccer, baseball, racing, football or golf channels? If you’re sitting across the table from a sports enthusiast, their eyes rarely focus on yours. You’ll feel like you’re talking to someone whose lights are on, but nobody’s home. The same happens in a party or at church. You’re engaged in a conversation with someone who’s obsessively monitoring their surroundings or their iPhone. Makes you feel like there’s someone or something more important in the room or on the phone than you. Effective leaders give their undivided attention to the person in front of them—engaging them, staying focused on them, and blocking out every distraction until the conversation ends. The person goes away feeling valued, heard, and treated as someone whose cares and concerns were as important to you as they were to them. Whatever your surroundings, focus on the person in front of you, not everything else. Whenever possible in a restaurant, seat yourself strategically with your back to the distractions of television screens and other people in the room. In a crowd, be like the pitcher on the mound—blocking out noisy fans in the stands, and focusing on the catcher’s mitt.
Don’t let your mind wander. Listen intently for the main points of the conversation. A wandering mind is just as bad as wandering eyes. The lights are on, but nobody’s home. In this case your eyes may stay focused, but the distraction comes from within—your mind. In conversations, I tend to lay the groundwork for a point I wish to make. It’s a weakness I default to if I’m not careful, and overuse my teaching gift. It makes the other person check out. To avoid this, I try to get to the bottom line more quickly so there’s enough room for dialogue. Most people don’t need details or have the patience for it—it’ll start their minds wandering. But if the person you’re talking to is offering a detailed foundation for their subject, hang in there, listen patiently, and grasp the main points they’re trying to make. Discipline your mind to pay attention, strategically interject by repeating their points to show you’re getting it, and they’ll feel like you understand them—even if you haven’t offered any solutions. Sometimes people just need someone who’ll listen, not necessarily looking for a solution. Or…you may offer a solution with a personal story of how you handled a similar situation.
Don’t spout off clichés. This is a cheap form of comfort or encouragement to a person—it doesn’t cost much. Such clichés look like: It’s all good. Just trust God. Have faith. Or the classic “go to” cliché, I’ll pray for you. I can’t point any fingers because I’ve been guilty of this when I’m in a hurry and don’t want to take the time to listen or care. It’s like the parable of the Good Samaritan where the priest and Levite passed by a robbed victim in the road, avoiding to help the man who had been left for dead (Luke 10:25-37). They might have thrown up a quick prayer like—O God, bless that poor soul—and continued on their way without lifting a finger. Then a Samaritan traveler (culturally despised by the priests and Levites) stopped to help the victim. He set aside his own agenda to attend to the man’s wounds and pay for his lodging until he recovered.