"When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen." ~Ernest Hemingway

“One of the best ways to persuade others is with your ears-by listening to them.” ~Dean Rusk

If there is one skill that can improve your career, it is the ability to listen to others well. Listening shows respect, gives you access to feedback and ideas, helps understanding of requirements and expectations and makes it easier for you to convey your thoughts. Listening is quite simply a foundational skill in your performance.

One of the secrets of those who are great listeners is that it is only partly about them listening. Yes, they need to understand what is being said, but it is just as much (if not even more) about encouraging the other person to share completely what they are thinking at the time. We can all listen, we learned that in kindergarten, but not all of us can access the “whole story” of what the other person is speaking about.

The reason that we see listening skills becoming increasingly rare is that the environment we work in is changing. Communication has shifted away from methods that give us practice listening like phone calls and face to face meeting, towards email, texting, and Skype that don’t require listening skills at all. So when you do get an opportunity to practice, what should you be focusing on? Start with these:

Non-verbal cues – One of the most overlooked areas of listening is not actually listening to the content, it’s looking at their body language and the tone in their voice. You can get a gauge on frustration, excitement, panic, disinterest and any other number of emotions. This can give you a great picture of how the speaker feels about the subject which lets you know how to react better to what they’re saying.

Benefit: Extra information and background on the topic

Show respect – Let me ask you something. Have you ever heard someone in a meeting or conference call asked a question and they respond, “I’m sorry, could you repeat the question?” That’s disrespect. It is almost a cliché when talking about listening skills, but it bears mentioning because it is so important. Engage in eye contact, eliminate any distractions, take notes, whatever it takes for you to pay attention. Yes, you will listen better, but by respecting the person enough to pay attention you are going to encourage further discussion and opinion from them. Remember, great listeners encourage more feedback and discourse.

Benefit: More information in the instant case, and encouragement for more information in the future

Never interrupt – A pause isn’t always a pause. Too many times we can’t wait to throw in our two-cents, give the solution, or ask a question. The problem is that when you interrupt the person, you throw off their train of thought and compromise the ability to obtain all of the information. It also gets at a disrespect similar to the above. If you wait for them to finish you are validating what they say and that encourages them to tell you everything.

Benefit: Getting the entire story

Listen for ideas, not just words – Not everyone is an amazing communicator, and not everyone who has an idea has thought of all the possible opportunities. Great listeners listen between the lines for the real thoughts that the person is having. They will also follow the logic that the person is using, and by doing so reveal further steps that could be taken or opportunities that might have been missed.

Benefit: Better understanding and enhanced ideas

Clarify understanding – And just like everyone isn’t a great communicator, there’s a decent chance YOU aren’t a perfect listener yet, and missed something in the message. When they have finished what they were saying, paraphrase what they said and repeat it back to them. Make sure you got it right and ensure that you got the “point” they were trying to make in addition to the details. Only after you repeat it back and have it right, do you ask questions to clarify further. Making sure that they know you heard what they said will open them up to those questions and feedback you have.

Benefit: Clarification

Defer judgement – Many times when we listen to someone, we can tell very early on that the point they are trying to make is wrong. Either they don’t have all of the information, the right perspective, or they haven’t thought about all of the repercussions. Even in instances like this it’s important to hold back judgement and listen intently. Not only is this polite and respectful, but what you will find is that there are kernels of truth in their thoughts and opinions and this may give you the seeds of improving the course of action or coming up with new ideas. Even wrong opinions and thoughts have useful information if you look and listen hard enough.

Benefit: New ideas and perspective

Put them at ease – When people are comfortable that you are interested, they are likely to share more. Think back to times when your boss was engaged with what you were saying versus times they were disinterested. In which case were you more apt to share more information? Repeating back what someone said to acknowledge it, nodding your head in understanding of what they said, and simply smiling as they speak puts them at ease and ensures they say everything they feel that they need to. The other trick is to stay silent. Part of this is manners and ensuring they are actually done talking, but it also shows interest in hearing more. Many times it is what comes after a 3 second pause of silence that is the most impactful thing said in the whole conversation.

Benefit: Get the juicy details

If you can work on your listening skills and put a focus on applying them then your access to information, opinions, and ideas will increase dramatically. Too many of us cut ourselves off from all of this by choosing the wrong communication channels or rushing through every interaction. You’ll find every communication touchpoint is more worthwhile if you invest yourself and your focus on them.