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Smart Skills

The 43:57 talking-listening ratio that makes for brilliant conversations

It’s time to put on your listening hat.
Credit: saeed karimi / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Listening to others makes for much better conversations. It means people will be more satisfied in your company and seek you out more.
  • If you want something out of a conversation, the 43:57 rule applies: You should always listen more than you talk if you want someone to come around to your side.
  • Listening does not come easily to everyone. For a lot of people, it requires teaching and practice. Here are a few ways to start improving.

Franklin D. Roosevelt hated small talk. As president of the United States, he was subjected to quite his fair share of it. Roosevelt argued that in most conversations of this kind, people never actually listened to what other people said, as if people were reading from a prompt card and politely waiting their turn. To illustrate his point, Roosevelt would sometimes greet people by saying, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” Invariably, people nodded, smiled, and carried on as usual. Only once did someone actually listen, and replied, “I’m sure she had it coming.”

Roosevelt no doubt had a point. A lot of the time, people hardly ever listen to what’s going on in a conversation. They either take in the gist or focus instead on getting their own response ready. A bad conversation is one where both parties are so intent on talking, that the “listening” is simply a silent gap waiting your turn. In these cases, the talking-listening ratio is all wrong.

So what makes a good conversation? How much should you listen and how much should you talk? And what practical applications can this give you?

Listening for good relationships

Talking about yourself feels good. A study from Harvard University shows that it even gives us similar kicks as does sex, cocaine, and good food. (If you do all three and talk about yourself, I imagine you’re in for a good night.) But while monologuing at someone might be good for you, it’ll probably leave your conversation partner much less happy. They’ll go away and tell their friends, “Wow, that guy didn’t stop talking about himself” or “It was like I wasn’t even there.”

The fact is that good conversations, like a game of catch, is a back-and-forth game. They need a talking-listening ratio that’s not far from 50:50. When we talk incessantly — when we hog the ball — our partner can feel unwanted and unappreciated. When we listen to someone else, we allow them to deal with whatever stresses or bothers them. As such, it builds much deeper relationships with much higher satisfaction.

The fact is that when we listen to someone, we show we’re willing to understand them. In our romantic relationships, this matters all the more. With those closest to us, we assume we know them; that they’re as static and familiar as your own hand (which does, of course, change).

But as Kate Murphy writes in her book You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters, “How long would you want to stay with someone who insisted on treating you as if you were the same person you were the day you two met? […] Listening is how we stay connected to one another as the pages turn in our lives.”

The 43:57 rule

If you want someone to come away thinking well of you, you’re going to need to listen more. It’s true, especially, if you hope to get something out of the conversation. Several years ago, Gong Research Labs decided to analyze 25,537 sales calls and with the goal of answering the question, “what talking-listening ratio makes for a great sales call?”

What they found is that “highest converting talk-to-listen ratio on sales calls is approximately 43:57.” Inversely, the least successful sales pitches were ones where the salesman talked for more than 60 percent of the time. This means that you’re most likely to persuade someone or get them to come around to your point of view if you listen more than you speak.

Obviously, this isn’t an absolute rule — every conversation is different, and you ought to adapt to the demands of every interaction. But it does reveal how much more powerful listening is when it comes to getting something you want.

The power of learning

But listening does not always come easily to people. Here are three starter tips to rebalance your own talking-listening ratio:

1. Let silence fall. Silence is the space where conversation grows. In the same way the words on this page are defined by the space around it, silence incubates our ideas and catalyses discussion. Let people say more. Just because someone has stopped talking, it doesn’t mean they’re done communicating.

2. Ask questions. Don’t prescript and line them up but respond organically to the meandering bends of the conversation. Ask for more information about something which interests you; peel back to a previous word or phrase they used or explore the details behind a half-told story. It’s a hard skill to get right, but it gets easier with practice.

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3. Empathize. It’s easy to focus on yourself in a conversation. We often think, “what do they want me to say?” or “how will I look if I ask that?” But when we get bogged down in self-obsession, we miss the conversation. Imagine yourself as the person you’re talking to and engage with their motivation behind speaking.

It’s commonly said that everyone has something to teach you, and there’s a lot of truth in this. When we listen to what other people say, when we read and learn from the world, we become better. Listening to what others have learned or what wisdom they have is greater (and far, far cheaper) than any university or school. It’s the way humans are meant to learn. As Epictetus once said, “Nature hath given men one tongue but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.”

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular account called Mini Philosophy and his first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.


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