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Body Language

I Hear You: Five Tips on Being a Good Listener

Listening is more than waiting your turn to speak.

Every successful person and every satisfying relationship became so through using good communication skills as part of the process. Most of us know someone whose communication skills we admire—they get their point across effectively. However, listening is the part of communicating that often gets short shrift in favor of talking. Personally or professionally, most of us could use some improvement in our listening techniques. Here, then, are some tips to make the give and take of an everyday dialogue go more smoothly.

1. Pay attention. Listening is not just waiting for your turn to speak. It is being actively involved in the process and absorbing both the obvious and the subtle information being offered. You must have made some eye contact or exchanged a smile or two before now or you wouldn't have gotten as far as a conversation. Now keep it up. Keep your eyes on the person who's talking. Note the body language. Respond with your own—smiling, nodding, or shaking your head in sympathy when appropriate. Look alive. Be involved.

2: Don't interrupt or derail the speaker. Some people, under the guise of showing interest, derail the speaker's train of thought. "So when I was in high school..." says Speaker A. "What high school did you go to?" interrupts Speaker B. Others who interrupt think they're being helpful. "So there I was breathing into a brown paper bag..." The other jumps in with "I know a better way to cure hiccups." Hold your questions and comments until the speaker is finished, or at least pauses to take a breath.

3. Gracefully dealing with a monologist: (Exception to the rule above) One exception to not interrupting the speaker's train of thought is allowable. If you have lost the thread of a story entirely or if the other person is rude enough to be delivering a monolog so lengthy you're in danger of falling asleep, you can step in. In those cases, it's permissible to interrupt with something like, "Wait. I don't understand. Was it you who phoned the police or someone else?" or "Let me see if I understand what you're saying. You sold your house three times because two different buyers backed out at the last minute?" For the sake of politeness, whatever interruption you bring up has got to be for the purpose of clarification and continuing the story being unfolded. Even if you have no interest in this very long saga, you would be adding to the rudeness by cutting the other off by saying something like "My sister is a police officer" or "Let me tell you about my own real estate experience."

4. Reflect back what you heard. Do not defend. Do not attack. Most people, if they feel in any way attacked, perhaps by some generalization they take personally, will either defend themselves ("What do you mean women are overly emotional? I think I'm quite rational!") and/or attack ("Women may be emotional but part of those emotions are empathy and caring which most men lack!"). Unless you want to make a scene and end the conversation by leaving in a huff, simply reflect back what you heard: "Are you saying that women in business overuse their emotions as a weapon in order to get what they want?"

5: If there's nothing to listen to. If you can't get the other person talking beyond monosyllables and the silence is deafening, a good listener asks open-ended questions about whatever you're sure is of interest to your conversation partner. "I understand you collect pre-WW II eggbeaters. Tell me about your favorite and how you acquired it." Even the dullest person lights up when talking about something that is of passionate interest, and even the most boring topic can become fascinating when spoken about with enthusiasm and delight.

I suggest that, as an experiment, you devote one day this week to each of these points in several conversations a day to see if your interactions are any more rewarding. I'm willing to take bets that your nearest and dearest will notice. If not, you will, by becoming a better listener, undoubtedly learn some things you didn't know.

Courtesy of's Happen Magazine,

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