How to Listen Like Thomas Jefferson

Abigail Adams wrote to her sister that Thomas Jefferson was, “one of the choice ones of the earth.” It was a well deserved compliment. There are few Presidents who have endured the riggers of history better than he. Regardless of political allegiance, or geography, most will agree that Thomas Jefferson was a good President. Being known as a “choice one” is one of the reasons he has always resonated well in our ever changing culture. He is easily remembered as a man of talent, intellect, and vision.

But how can we become known as “choice?” Can we be known for having tastes and talents like our third President?

Most people mistakenly assume that it requires money and position, or something of that sort. Having a million YouTube subscribers or Twitter followers may make you popular, but it will not make you “choice.” It requires nothing grand, nothing most would consider special. It requires nothing more than simple things like listening.

Why You Should Listen

Thomas Jefferson had an eager curious mind, and took advantage of every social interaction he had to learn something if he could. He learned early in his political career that it was often more important to listen to others than to speak oneself.


Source –

Politicians often talk too much and listen too little, which can be self-defeating, for in many instances the surer route to winning a friend is not to convince them that you are right but that you care what they think. Everyone wants to believe that what they have to say is fascinating, illuminating, and possibly even epochal.

– Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Here are a few reasons why listening is so important:

It makes others feel important – We all like to bend an ear every now and again. It is the greatest compliment to have a listening, attentive audience. It makes us feel important and special to know that someone cares about what we think. If we like it, it is a good bet everyone else does too.

Being an audience gains you an audience – If you listen patiently to what others have to say, they are more likely to actually listen to you when you speak. Your attention gives them a measure of respect, and they are readily willing to return the favor.

 It’s a chance to learn – Jefferson used conversation to learn from others. Sometimes there would be nothing of importance or interest spoken, but often, he would find something of practical use or knowledge said. If you pay attention, you will be surprised at what you might actually hear and learn.

How to Listen

Listening properly is not just sitting still and staring blankly at someone who’s talking. Being a good listener requires listening actively.

Active listening is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding. Often when people talk to each other, they don’t listen attentively. They are often distracted, half listening, half thinking about something else.

-University of Colorado

Most of us do not ignore what people say on purpose. Usually it happens accidently, with our minds drifting to other activities and goals we have in the future, or to what we want to say in reply. Here are a few ways of avoiding those slips.

Pay attention – Put your focus on the person you are talking to, not your phone or internal schedule. When Jefferson engaged someone in conversation, he would listen to them so intently that they would feel like the only one in the room. If your mind starts to drift, bring it back. Remember to give the person you are listening to the same attention that you would want in return.

Respond appropriately – Most of us have experienced moments of embarrassment when we’ve said the wrong thing for the situation. Frequently, it’s due to having not paid enough attention to what was going on. Responding with the right words demonstrates that you have paid attention and are worth paying attention to.

Keep the topic familiar – In conversation, keep the topic to things that engage the other the most. Jefferson found that people are more likely to say something worth listening to if it is near their heart, for that is where the best thoughts and ideas are discovered. When a person talks about what they are passionate about, or holds a great interest in, they are excited to tell an attentive audience. By not changing the subject to one that interests you more, it proves to the other your interest in them.


In the book Wit: The Art of Being Interesting, the author wrote that, “If wit is the art of being interesting, then conversation is the art of being interested.” Always keep in mind that regardless of how bland a person may appear, there is something about them to be interested in. As with anything, listening can be difficult if you don’t practice regularly. The longer you make an effort to pay attention to what other people are saying, you will be surprised at how easy it becomes.

Sources and suggested reading:

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph Ellis

Social Engineering: The Art of Human Hacking by Christopher Hadnagy


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