I don't remember very much about the conversation itself. It happened years ago, and was really just one of those normal water cooler interactions one has. Two things, however, stood out. The first is that I did little more than listen politely. Every once in a while I might have chimed in with some agreement or perhaps a counterpoint to what the other person was saying, but for the most part she did all of the talking. The second thing I remember is the way the conversation ended. "I really enjoyed talking to you," she said. "You are very smart."
As someone who often has strong opinions and a tendency to voice them, it was an instructive encounter. Sometimes the best way to appear intelligent is to say nothing at all. I would later learn that Dale Carnegie described the same strategy by titling a chapter "An Easy Way to Become a Good Conversationalist" in How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Being listened to is a flattering experience. It is much more common to have one's views misinterpreted by someone who is half-listening but putting their own interpretation on what you are saying. Once they have made an erroneous assumption about your thoughts it can be quite tough to break them away from it. Having one's views correctly interpreted, on the other hand, can create a feeling of unity even if the other person disagrees with those views. The important thing is not so much being in agreement, but being understood.
In my current job I often have to identify problems. We have productive meetings in which several intelligent people submit their work to each other only tohave it torn to shreds. Often the most value I can add to these discussions is not to offer suggestions, but to listen carefully to what the others are saying. It is all to common that a single word or phrase prevents a message from being properly received. If I can understand it and rephrase it, often a heated discussion quickly becomes agreement.
Another way active listening can be used productively is in what Scott Adams calls the "high ground maneuver." The way this works is you move from the point of disagreement to a more universal state in which you both agree. In The Righteous Mind Jonathan Haidt identifies six fundamental ideas that most people and moral systems value: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. By appealing to one of these virtues, a common ground can be found. For example, many people advocate programs to encourage or require employers to hire people from underrepresented demographic groups to ensure more fairness in job opportunities. Other people believe that such incentives are themselves unfair. Although diametrically opposed, both beliefs are rooted in a desire for fairness. To persuade someone to change their mind (or even to disagree amicably) it can be helpful to acknowledge that shared virtue. "I understand that you are motivated by a desire for a fair work environment, and so am I. In my opinion, the best way to achieve that is..."
Before closing, I do want to address one quote that people often use in regard to listening as a conversation skill. It usually goes along the lines of "you have one mouth and two ears. Use them proportionately." While memorable, I think it is only practical when exactly three people are involved in the conversation. Among a couple, if applied by both parties one third of the interaction would be awkward silence. Among more than three, it results in someone not being heard.
No matter the correct proportion, I clearly have done more than my share of talking for now. It is my turn to listen, so please share your thoughts in the comments below.