ListenYour ability to listen is the most critical talent you’ll need to succeed in your career. However, very few of us listen properly. In fact, most of us don’t know how to listen intelligently, systematically, and purposefully.

Think about your most recent conversations at work. If you remember what you said better than what you heard, you’ve probably developed some bad listening habits. Instead of really listening, you let your mind wander while others are talking. You think about what you are going to say next before the others have finished.

Faulty listening habits can cause misunderstandings in a busy office. Indeed, many serious mistakes and organizational mix-ups stem from people not hearing instructions. Poor listening can cause people to miss important appointments, misunderstand directions, misinterpret valuable suggestions, and address the wrong problems. Some managers believe they earn up to 60 percent of their salaries simply by listening.

The higher a manager is on the corporate ladder, the more time they spend listening to others. Most executive-appraisal studies find that managers who are rated most efficient by subordinates are, invariably, good listeners. In job interviews, many candidates fail to impress managers because they listen so poorly. Hiring managers regard good listening skills as crucial, and use feedback to determine how well candidates listen. Answering questions incorrectly, or failing to grasp an interviewer’s point, will sound the death knell for many job offers.

If you think that your listening skills need a tune up, try the following tips:

1. Stop Interrupting People

Interrupting people and finishing their sentences often damages communication. Deliberately try to inhibit your temptations to interrupt. Make sure the speaker has finished conveying their message before you speak.

Show the speaker you’re genuinely interested and want to listen to them. If you aren’t sure of the whole message, ask the speaker to repeat or clarify it. Constantly evaluate your own understanding of the message. The most effective way to break the interrupting habit is to apologize every time you interrupt someone.

2. Take Time to Listen

The speaker is apt to feel rushed if you indicate your listening time is limited. Many people think aloud and grope toward their meanings. Frequently, initial statements only vaguely approximate what a person means. For the speaker to open up and crystallize their meaning, you have to give them enough time to speak freely.

3. Give Your Full Attention

You’ll act like a good listener if you’re alert, look the speaker in the eye, and lean forward. Show your interest by nodding your head or raising your eyebrows, and offer encouragement with comments and questions.

4. Adapt Your Thought Speed

You can think three to four times faster than a person can talk, which is a major reason for poor concentration. Impatient with the speaker’s slow progress, your mind wanders off until you hear something that interests you. Then you realize you’ve missed something, and you don’t really understand what the person is talking about.

To use your thinking speed to full advantage, keep analyzing what the speaker is saying as they talk. Mentally sum up what’s been said. Weigh the evidence by considering whether the facts are accurate and the viewpoints are objective, or whether the speaker is only trying to prove a point.

5. Don’t Overreact to the Delivery

If you become too involved in a person’s speech style, you’ll lose track of the message. Force yourself to concentrate on their message, not their accent, style of speaking, speech impediment, or disorganized thought pattern.

6. Listen Between the Lines

Concentrate not only on what’s being said, but also on the attitudes, needs, and motives behind the words. Remember that the speaker’s words may not always contain the entire message. A change in tone or volume may have additional meaning. So may facial expressions, gestures, and body movements. Being alert to nonverbal cues increases your total comprehension of the message.

7. Don’t Become Distracted

Poor listeners can easily get distracted by sounds, objects, and people, such as police sirens, ringtones, or people passing in the hallway. Good listeners position themselves to avoid distractions, or concentrate harder on what the speaker is saying.

By following these strategies, you can help yourself become a better listener — and a more valuable employee.

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