Pallavi Pinakin describes the nuts and bolts of being an effective listener

When it comes to improving our communication skills, many of us have a tendency to focus mostly on speaking well and getting our message across. What’s often overlooked is the crucial role that listening plays, which is very much part and parcel of being an effective communicator.

The best leaders and conversationalists know this very well and practise it in their daily interactions. Inspiring tales of beloved CEOs abound – those who greet both the vice president and doorman by name, as well as remember to check whether the receptionist’s mother’s surgery went well and how the salesman’s children fared in their exams.

Behind each of these iconic personalities lies a genuine mastery of the skill of listening.

Yet, science has suggested that most of us are actually pretty poor listeners. We tend to tune out while other people are talking, already planning what we’ll say next – so that we sound smart and awesome!

Another common tendency is to bring the conversation back to ourselves as soon as possible by saying: ‘I know exactly how you feel. The same thing happened to me when…’ Or we simply pretend to listen and offer a cursory ‘uh-huh’ while using that time to think about something completely unrelated.

In all these different ways, we focus on ourselves rather than the other person, which is incompatible with being a good listener.

To forge more meaningful relationships and inspire greater respect, trust and loyalty among your peers, brush up on your listening skills. The end goal is to leave people feeling better about themselves and their situation following an interaction with you – not feel worse!

Here are some key listening habits to develop so you can become a more intelligent and empathetic communicator, both at work and in your personal life.

USE THEIR NAME A person’s name is the single-most important word for them. It’s closely linked to their personal identity, which means it is essential you get it right. Think about how you feel when someone repeatedly mispronounces your name or makes fun of how it sounds.

Simply taking the trouble to learn someone’s name goes a long way to strengthening your interaction skills. So next time, pay attention when people you meet introduce themselves – and use their name in the conversation that follows (if you don’t quite catch it, ask them to repeat it and practise saying it).

And there are bonus points if you get it right the next time you meet. Communication gurus make it a point to jot down names for better recall.

LISTEN ACTIVELY People often think of listening as a passive skill – after all, you only need to hear what the other person is saying and nod along, right? Not quite. Active listening involves both listening attentively and responding appropriately.

For instance, if someone tells you he received an award at work, you could respond in four different ways – viz. active and constructive (‘That’s amazing!’ ‘How did it happen?’ ‘Let’s celebrate!’); passive and constructive (‘Good news!’ ‘Well done!’); active and destructive (‘Does this mean they’re going to dump even more work on you?’); or passive and destructive (‘Where’s the TV remote?’).

Clearly, the best response is active and constructive: you are being positive, interested and engaged. Isn’t this the kind of reaction we all want when we share good news?

RESPONSE PATH Many communications experts recommend the following steps to guide your response as a listener: paraphrase, inquire and acknowledge.

In other words, express your understanding of the situation, pose pertinent questions and offer empathy. Paraphrasing a message shows the other person that you’ve heard her and creates space for clarification. Asking relevant questions allows the speaker to explain the situation in more detail and volunteer information that may help you too.

Finally, an empathetic acknowledgment indicates that you genuinely care about someone’s experience and have tried to put yourself in his shoes. The three-step response process is particularly helpful for those who aren’t naturally adept at building rapport with people.

DETAILS MATTER By listening attentively, you gather background information that you’d otherwise miss – such as clues to what the other person is interested in, and her history and outlook on life. By identifying these nuggets, you have the opportunity to ask smart questions and transform superficial small talk into a more meaningful interaction.

Studies have proven that we love to talk about ourselves. So why not offer others an opportunity to share what’s closest to their heart? Moreover, by referring to the little details mentioned by the speaker, you demonstrate that you’ve been listening carefully and find his or her words to be invaluable.