Are You Listening?

Are you a good listener? A good conversationalist? Are you someone who is able to effortlessly carry a conversation? Do you flip through potential topics or responses in your head while engaged in conversation to keep a seamless flow of rapport? Or do you really listen, using all your senses to observe and interpret the contextual or behavioral cues that another makes?

Being a quality conversationalist is futile unless you’re a proficient listener.

Great listeners know how to make others feel heard without needing to nod, insert “mhmms,” interrupt, or rephrase/reiterate the words of others.

As Kate Murphy points out in her novel You’re Not Listening, hearing is passive and listening is active. People who know how to actively listen demonstrate attentiveness through their responses, asking questions of relevance to spark personal insights in their conversational partner.

But what makes someone a quality conversationalist?

Paul Pangaro, PhD, notes in his “Conversation Imparts Agency to Human-Machine Interaction” presentation, that a great conversational partner does the following:

  • Asks great questions
  • Offers different ways to achieve your goal
  • Collaborates with you to define new goals
  • Helps you to be what you want to be…or to become


Arguably, you cannot be a great conversationalist without mastering the art of attentive listening.

A listener’s intent should be to understand the speaker while approaching the subject matter with genuine curiosity. They should be fully present and engaged in the conversation, empathizing with and validating their conversational partner. Listening is the vehicle we use to uncover the idiosyncrasies of those with whom we communicate. Much like design thinking, the desire to listen is driven by an urge to discover core meanings, engage in sense making, and connect with humanity.

It begs the question: How can we design conversational interfaces that know how to actively listen if many of us have yet to accomplish the art ourselves?