Diminish distractions. Studies show that we're distracted or preoccupied during about 75 percent of our conversations. "One of the most important ways to listen, especially in this age of computers, cell phones, televisions, and car radios, is to simply shut them off and bring your full presence to the situation," says Maria Roca, PhD, president of the International Listening Association.
Ask, don't tell. It's natural to want to help the other person by offering a solution or sharing a perspective on a problem. But no matter how carefully we may have weighed our response, experts agree that once advice is offered, communication is likely to shut down. Patricia Farrell, PhD, author of How to Be Your Own Therapist (McGraw-Hill), suggests posing questions that extend conversation rather than cut it off. You might simply tell the speaker, "Take me through the steps that led you here."
Make eye contact. Whenever possible, talk about important things in person -- and look into each other's eyes during the conversation. Recent research shows that eye-to-eye contact between mothers and their babies activates the prefrontal cortex -- the area of the brain responsible for attachment. "When you make eye contact, the lines of communication are deepened, and the speaker literally feels heard," says Karen Sherman, PhD, author of Marriage Magic! Find It, Keep It, Make It Last (AuthorHouse).
Don't overthink. "It's impossible to listen if you're figuring out how to respond at the same time," says Peter Favaro, PhD, author of Smart Parenting (McGraw-Hill). "If you want to get information from anyone, keep your attention focused on their words." And when you do respond, avoid parroting, or repeating sentences word for word. Contrary to popular belief, he says, this sends the message that you're not truly listening -- only hearing.
Fill in the blanks. Most of us leave out about 25 percent of our story, says Laurie Puhn, author of Instant Persuasion: How to Change Your Words to Change Your Life (Penguin). "Perfect your listening skills by noting gaps and inconsistencies," says Puhn. Take the perspective of an objective observer by asking follow-up questions when something doesn't make sense to you.
Read between the lines. "Real listening means tuning in to the emotional content underneath the words," says Jim Tamm, coauthor of Radical Collaboration: Five Essential Skills to Overcome Defensiveness and Build Successful Relationships (HarperCollins). Take note of nonverbal cues, such as voice inflection, facial gestures, and body movements. If anything seems out of sync with what the speaker is saying, simply ask, "What are you feeling?"
Be patient. Always allow the speaker's words to sink in before responding, advises Martin Friedman, a couples therapist in Palo Alto, California. This allows her to consider what she has said as well as to clarify or change her thoughts. While embracing the silence may seem like a passive approach to solving a problem, it's actually an effective and empowering part of the listening process. You're telling the other person that she has something worthy to share, and that you are open and willing to understand her better. And that statement, you'll soon see (and hear), speaks volumes.