by Steve Adubato, PhD

Last week I talked about how hard it is to be a good listener and I explored the benefits of improving listening skills.

This week, some concrete advice that you can put to work right away. So, forget David Letterman. Here are my top 10 tips for better listening:

  1. Get yourself in the right frame of mind to listen. I call it my "listening mode." If you go into a conversation or a meeting thinking, "God, this is going to be so boring. I wish I could get out of here," you're in trouble. I find that when I make a decision to listen because I think there might be something said that can be helpful, I inevitably find something of value. If I take the opposite approach, it is as bad as I thought it would be. Work to find a reason to listen. There could be a big payoff.
  2. Concentrate. Let's not kid ourselves. This is hard stuff. I'm not talking about simply hearing what is said, but listening. Don't concentrate on what you are preparing to say in response or in rebuttal to what you think is being said. When you do this, you tend to miss important information. This is what I call "listening defensively."
  3. Fight the urge to interrupt. It's really irritating to the other person. Think of how you feel when it is done to you.
  4. Practice patience. Take a breath or two. Try not to finish the other person's sentence. I can't tell you how many times I've done this and found out that I was wrong about what the other person was going to say. Plus, even if you're right, it's a turnoff.
  5. Being a good listener doesn't mean you have to shut your mouth entirely. Be an "active listener" in conversations or meetings. Occasionally paraphrase what you think someone is saying--"So, what you're saying is" or "I just want to be clear on this." Be empathetic. By doing this you are acknowledging the other person and what he or she is saying. It is a powerful communication tool.
  6. Keep your eyes on the other person. Fight the urge to look around the room. Sure, there are distractions, but when you make a decision to listen with your mind and body, you will be amazed at your ability to concentrate. I'm not advocating that you stare like some sort of nut. Just let the other person know that you are present with them. Focused, steady eye contact is big.
  7. Use "encouragers" in conversation. Things like, "really," hmmm," or "c'mon?" Don't be a pest, but send the message that you are truly interested in what is being said and want to know more. Acknowledge the other person. They will tend to open up and share with you.
  8. Find common ground with the other person. Find out some things about the other person before you start talking. Bring up things that both of you share--family, sports, education, background, previous jobs etc. This isn't a gimmick. It is a very real way of getting to know someone before you start talking "business." It breaks the ice and makes it easier to listen.
  9. Use your body language to show your interest. Lean toward the speaker instead of slouching back. Keep your arms and hands open and relaxed. Never cross your arms if you want to send the message that you really want to listen and know more. As fellow columnist Carol Kleiman wrote on this page recently, "Body language often speaks loudest."
  10. Finally, try not to judge the speaker. We get so caught up with whether or not we agree with the other person's point of view, we tend to miss out on opportunities to truly understand what he or she is saying. It is not that important that we agree. What is important is that we connect on a human, personal level. That's about understanding. That's about trust.

Remember, when it comes to being a great communicator, listening is often more than half the battle.