Would you please listen? It's a complaint we've all heard (though perhaps not listened to). The price paid for tuning out can sting: from flubbing a work assignment to broken relationships. "Frustrated, worthless, devalued, disrespected—that's how people feel when they're 'heard' but not 'listened to,' " says Jennie Grau, president of communications training and coaching firm Taliaferro Grau Associates. Yet attentiveness and understanding—the qualities that differentiate physically hearing from actually listening—can be hard to cultivate.
Learn to tune in more clearly, and you'll enhance your personal and professional skill sets alike, says Rockhurst University communication Prof. Laura Janusik. "Business is all about relationships, and being a better listener helps you establish more positive relationships," she says. The first step is to limit distractions. Forgo multitasking, and focus on what the speaker's saying. If the moment simply doesn't allow you to pay full attention, set up an alternative time when you will be able to concentrate. At the same time, clear your head of assumptions that may close off your objectivity, says Madelyn Burley-Allen, author of Listening, the Forgotten Skill.
Between the lines. Next, stop interrupting. Tempted to jump in before the other person finishes speaking? Grau's tip for restraining yourself: Squeeze your fingers, count to five, re-evaluate whether it's time to talk. To help concentration, jot down notes first. Be aware of the subjects or buzzwords that trigger your emotions—both positive and negative—and calm down before responding. Listen between the lines: If you hear only the words without paying attention to the speaker's tone of voice, facial expression, and body language, you risk missing nuanced, underlying meanings or important signals, Burley-Allen says. Confirm you've understood: A concise paraphrase will acknowledge that you've "gotten" the message.
And when it's your turn to speak, know you've provided a model for how you hope your words will be received.