This skill can help you in every aspect of your life—with family and friends, and with your colleagues at work.

By Roxanna Coldiron
September 14, 2020
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What does it mean to listen intently? Most of us think of it as shutting off our own thoughts and tuning into someone else's words, but it's really about achieving a deeper understanding. "Having solid listening skills isn't just about the information it brings you, but also has benefits in what it can avoid," explains Dr. Julie Gurner, psychologist and executive performance coach. "While having good listening skills brings understanding, it also avoids many of the pitfalls and problems that can come from misunderstandings, assumptions, and lack of clarity."

Listening skills can improve every relationship that we have in our lives—both personal and professional—and they can open our minds to new ideas and opportunities that we would have otherwise missed. The problem is that it is natural for us to only half-listen to other people because we have our own concerns, worries, and preconceived notions swirling around in our heads all of the time. Here's how to quiet those thoughts and tune into someone else, according to experts and research.

Show Interest

According to a Harvard study, good listening goes beyond remaining silent when someone else speaks. The study focused on how managers and coaches could improve their relationships with employees, and the results suggested that listening still includes interaction between the one speaking and the one listening. What does this mean? Think about it: When you are sharing something with someone, you want them to react to what you are saying. Acknowledge what they are saying with eye contact and nodding when appropriate. Body language, tone, inflection, and other physical "tells" can reveal how someone is feeling while they are speaking. Showing interest and asking questions, therefore, turns the act of listening into a collaboration between two or more people.

Extend Empathy

Great listening involves empathy. "Remember that when someone is speaking to you, the words are important, but so are the ideas and emotions behind them," says Dr. Gurner. "Listening to what someone is saying, should not only bring you facts, but help you understand something about the person and their perspective, and that's where you can truly have breakthrough moments in your engagement with them."

Why does someone feel the way they do? Can you see it from their point of view? If you take the time to deeply listen to their words, your ability to see their perspective—even if you don't entirely agree with it—can improve the overall communication and diffuse an argument. We don't always know how to express what we really mean, so listening in this way can help uncover the real meaning behind words and actions.

Make It a Habit

The benefits to becoming a better listener are long: stronger friendships, fewer arguments, and more insight. Learning to listen will help you to understand and empathize with other people as well, and that, in turn, will improve your intuition. This is a skill that all of us should develop over time. "People feel heard not only when you hear the facts, but when you clearly understand what they're saying," Dr. Gurner says, "which is usually far more expansive than words alone."

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