If you want to be a great conversationalist, don’t talk!

Updated Sep 30, 2007: Dr. Frank makes a very interesting comment below about listening. He has a very interesting take on communication on his blog – communication is a dance which is a must read.

Okay, by now it must be clear to you all that I love this type of stuff. Stay with me. One of the first non-fiction books I read was “How to win friends and influence people” by Dale Carnegie. It is the type of book that fires up your imagination and opens up new vistas in your mind. It is a true self-help classic.

I still remember many examples from this book and that’s a big accomplishment for a book I read almost 20 years ago. Of all the things I read in the book, one incident he talked about has remained etched in my memory – Dale Carnegie spends 1 hour with someone and during that time he speaks only for 5 min and the rest of the time was spent listening to the other person. In the end the other person tells Dale that he is a great conversationalist.

If ever you wanted a great example of listening skills , this is the one. Because of how counter intuitive this is – you talk less and listen more and you are a better conversationalist – this lesson never leaves my mind. I have applied this lesson many times and I found that not only do I become a better conversationalist but I also tend to learn more. Recently, I met an entrepreneur for 1.5 hours. She wanted some advice on Knowledge Management and a mutual friend had arranged the meeting.

In the 1.5 hours, I spoke at best for maybe 10-12 minutes at the maximum. She was explaining about how she started and how she grew the company rapidly in a short time etc. I found her story really fascinating and inspiring as well. I finshed the meeting and came home. A few days later I heard from the mutual friend that the entrepreneur was very impressed with my knowledge and she found the session very helpful!

I experienced the Dale Carnegie Aha moment yet again and I thought I’ll share it with you. The reason behind this is (I think), most people want to talk and but are seldom listened to. In sum, if you want to be a great conversationalist, listening serves you better.

What are your experiences in this area? Do you agree?


  1. Anonymous said September 25, 2007, 1:55 pm:

    Thanks for sharing this Sukumar. Listening also provides a means to understand and assimilate what other person is saying rather than preparing to talk and presentation of idea in the conversation, which I think will take away some concentration.
    I just ordered the book “How to win friends and influence people”.

  2. Anonymous said September 26, 2007, 4:05 am:

    Thanks Vamsi. You are right. We do make the mistake of preparing to say our thing instead of listening. I am sure you will enjoy the book.

  3. Hi Sukumar,

    Was searching for your personal mail ID and came here to you blog….

    I feel that the more you listen to people, the more important they feel, makes them ‘special’ and it definitely builds relationship & trust ๐Ÿ™‚


  4. Thanks Ami. Hope you found my email addr. It is in the about page and also in my orkut profile.

    You’re right listening does help build trust. – Sukumar

  5. How did I miss this post!!! I never got round to reading “How to win friends…” I somehow did not like the title of the book.

    You are right, listening is a rare skill. However, there is a problem associated with being a good listener, everyone wants to talk to you and you really wish for some silence in your life ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Thanks Archana. It is a great book to read. I haven’t read it recently so i don’t know whether i will like it if i read it now.

    Yeah, being known as a listener does bring the problem that you mention. But if a lot more people listened and talked less maybe that problem wouldn’t arise ๐Ÿ™‚


  7. Anonymous said September 30, 2007, 2:27 am:

    Beautiful post Sukumar! My brother has this book and asked me to read it but I really dint give it a second thought. Listening is a great skill. I have a friend who talks less and listens a lot and guess what he has such a huge network of friends and people really adore him a lot.
    Listening is indeed a rare and much-needed skill. Will surely read the book soon which is lying in the book shelf. Atleast my bro will be happy that i read it:)

  8. Anonymous said September 30, 2007, 9:08 am:

    Thanks Saraswathi. Please do read the book. It is a must read. – Sukumar

  9. Hi Sukumar,

    I came here via Archana Raghuram’s excellent Science, Books & Stories blog, where she mentioned her connection with you.

    I’m commenting on this post because conversation as an art and science is of great interest to me – I think it’s a glue that holds the world together, and is a powerful tool for changing it for the better. I really like what you say about the importance of listening, which wholly resonates with my experience.

    From my experience, I would add that to be a good conversationlist, the listening has to be a ‘deep practice’ of – metaphorically – ‘holding’ someone else in my attention. Also, I would suggest that if and when I do express myself in conversation with another, it’s because I do so in relation to various distinctions that are significant to me. My point is that, when another ascribes me to being a good conversationalist – even if I am spending a lot of time listening – my listening is not at all passive: I am attending to the distinctions that arise in conversation and, particularly, looking out for the distinctions that are important to me.; and I suggest this is so even regardless of whether the distinctions are explicitly expressed by my co-conversationlist, or are triggered indirectly by her or him…

    Please, for more of my thoughts on communication visit:


    Thank you for reading my comment,


  10. Dr. Frank,

    Thanks for stopping by. Thanks also for the insightful comment. I agree one should practice active listening. Even in this example, i quoted, i actually enjoyed listening to the entrepreneur. Your systemid-diagrams on communication is very interesting. I am updating the post to provide a link.


  11. Anonymous said October 2, 2007, 9:36 am:

    Thank you so much for your kind words, Sukumar!