Chit-Chat Credentials: Sharpening Your Social Skills with Two Distinct Listening Styles

Listening is a communications staple and should be utilized more than 50% of the time during conversations. But just knowing this doesn’t seem to guarantee we’ll act on it. For example, I laughed out loud when a colleague once confessed about the way he uses his listening skills: to hear when the speaker is finished so he can jump in and make his point! Sound familiar? It’s also fascinating to observe well-meaning colleagues who pride themselves on being good listeners as they proceed to cut others off, become distracted, or jump to conclusions. And sadly, that’s only half the story. Even when we think we’re listening, we can fall victim to our blind spots and botch up the communication.

Let me add an additional wrinkle: There are two ways to listen, each with a distinct goal. When we listen to connect, the purpose is to find common ground. In neuroscience, this means we’re striving to engage the rostromedial prefrontal cortex, or the part of the brain that says, “She’s like me, and I’m like her”. The other is listening to understand, or as executive coach Judith E Glaser says, to stand under someone else’s reality.

The two listening styles light up different parts of the brain, and remarkably, without one, you can’t engage the other. Therefore I often suggest that small talk, another cliché social skill, is actually crucial to building rapport. Although it can come off as shallow, the proclivity for chit-chat serves as a useful entry point for authentic connection. When you first meet another person, your brain is instinctually sizing them up, mostly to decide if they’re a threat. Of course your smile, eye contact and handshake still factor in as noteworthy first points of interaction. But since we as humans are tribal, the brain remains programmed to determine whether we’re in-tribe or out-of-tribe. Let’s look at a couple of case studies from DRIVEN clients.


Linda shared a story just last week about her direct report, Ashley, who seemed a whole lot warmer lately. As we explored, Linda pinpointed a specific pivot in their interaction pattern that led to a dramatic upgrade in their communications with one another. A couple of weeks before this pivot occurred, Ashley took a personal day because her father had a stroke. When Ashley returned to work, Linda cordially asked about her Dad’s status. Over the next couple of weeks, Linda began learning about Ashley’s life in daily 2-minute snippets during quick morning greetings. The lesson is that before Ashley’s father’s unfortunate incident, and Linda’s subtle first inquiry thereof, their workplace relationship was all business, all the time. Linda knew next to nothing about Ashley’s life. Now she sees Ashley as a human being, not just human capital.


When it comes to social skills, a little effort goes a long way. That’s the theme of Mandy’s story of building a neutral relationship into one of respect with her direct report, Derrick. Derrick did his job well. He was responsible, reliable, didn’t have his own agenda, and was a team player. Nevertheless, Mandy was disturbed by the fact that after Derrick worked his full day, he’d simply pack up and leave without announcement. Although there was nothing implicitly wrong with his habit, it clashed with the way Mandy was groomed in business. She lived by an unwritten rule that it was appropriate to inform your colleagues that you were leaving for the day. When Mandy approached Derrick about this, he was neutral during the discussion, and agreed to the new protocol. Then, magic began to happen. Over the next few months, a robotic “I’m heading out” morphed into brief, friendly chit-chat about the other’s evening routines. Before long, Mandy’s respect for Derrick blossomed, having learned of his devotion to physical fitness, his continued camaraderie with his college buddies, and his volunteer work with the American Heart Association.


Listening to connect is fundamentally different from listening to judge, confirm or reject. Its function is to simply listen to the other person with a focus on them, not you. When you listen to connect, stay curious. Ask yourself what the speaker is thinking or trying to say. Employ some empathy as you accept that the speaker is sharing something above and beyond the truth. It’s her perception of reality. Her truth. If you can listen in this manner, then you’ll know the questions to ask to open up her mind’s process, revealing more about her point of view. A simple “tell me more” or “share your thoughts” can be applied to chit-chat sessions ranging from business to family to sports. Even when sharing from two perspectives, if you’re listening to connect, it makes you feel, well, connected!

Next, we’ll consider Listening to Understand. I hope you’ll continue the journey with me.