How to Start a Conversation with Someone Who Will Not Listen

How to Start a Conversation with Someone Who Will Not Listen

The most important part of any conversation may be what happens before the first word gets said.

With someone who is easy to talk with, it’s usually OK to say whatever is on your mind whenever it occurs to you. Talking with a person who listens to you and responds thoughtfully and kindly seems to take no effort. Practicing good communication skills and having meaningful conversations with a person who won’t listen to you, however, can be a challenge.

“Is this a bad person,” you ask? Maybe not. Maybe you’re just trying to talk to one of those strong silent types, for whom launching into a conversation is disrupting to peace and quiet.  Or maybe this is a person who is busy with job, kids and chores, who rarely has the time to listen carefully to anyone. In both these cases, having a good conversation may be worth whatever amount of effort it takes.

There is a way to get him to listen to you (or to get her to listen to you; we’ll not be sexist here). Here it is: Before you open your mouth to speak, ask yourself, “What do I want to get by having this conversation? What is my goal?”

Goal No. 1: Action

The most common goal of any conversation is action. If you are communicating primarily to get someone to do something, start the conversation by saying something like, “Would you do something for me?” The answer may be, “Sure, what?” in which case you are on your way to getting what you want.

Or maybe the answer will be, “Yes, but not right now.”  In this case, wait until the time seems right and start over. This time, start with “Do you have time for a question?” If you get a favorable response, then ask, “Would you do something for me?”

Goal No. 2: Understanding

Do you want this person, as a result of your conversation, to think about what you’ve said and to know what you meant? Do you want this person to sympathize with your point-of-view?  If so, begin the conversation with “May I explain something to you?”

Goal No. 3: Agreement

The third goal in communicating with someone is to reach agreement. Are you trying to get this person not just to understand but to agree with your viewpoint? This is difficult because you cannot ask for agreement: Nobody should agree with you just because you ask them to.

You should not ask for agreement, but you can ask about it, like this: “Can I ask if you agree with me about something?”  Beginning like this may not get someone to have the same opinion you have, but if you go about it right, there should be a greater appreciation of your viewpoint.

Goal No. 4: Sharing

Sometimes the most important goal in communication is to share something with another person. Jokes and anecdotes are often related for no reason other than to share a wry attitude. “How was your day?” may be asked not to analyze someone’s activities but to commiserate or be amused. Intimate conversation takes place to bring people together as a family, a group or a couple, not to get someone to do something or even to think something.

When sharing is the primary goal, it is important to be upfront about it. This is because so much conversation is action oriented that a desire to have intimate conversation may be misinterpreted if it is not clear. If you are trying to talk to a guy (or talk to a girl) about your feelings and you neglect to state your goal, you may be rejected by someone who is listening to you only to find an action item.

To tell someone that your primary reason for having a talk is to feel close, you can start with “Is this a good time to share something with you?”

Summary: Initiating a Conversation

Willingness to listen is the cornerstone of good communication. You can help a person whose listening skills need improvement by beginning every conversation with a clear statement of its purpose. Your choices of initiators are:

  • “Would you do something for me?” (Action)
  • “May I explain something to you?” (Understanding)
  • “Can I ask if you agree with me about something?” (Agreement)
  • “Is this a good time to share something with you?” (Sharing)
  • On the Benefits of Meaningful Conversation: “Meaningful Conversation May be Key to Happiness,” by Washington University in St. Louis on (
  • On the necessity for clear communication, among other things: “What is Good Communication?” by Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott on (

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