Want to communicate better, improve your relationships, and learn more about yourself at the same time? Tune in and connect by practicing these 7 simple steps.

By Robin Westen

The Challenges of Listening

One late afternoon following a whirlwind of errands, I walked into my house to hear the phone ringing. It was my friend Lydia, upset over an argument with her husband. My usual approach is to offer advice, no holds barred. I tend to be a "fixer," compelled to make things right. But this time, exhausted from chores, I simply pulled off my coat, sat down in a chair and tuned in to my friend's frustration and sadness. Without the distraction of judgment or the desire to quell her pain, I stayed wholly present while she talked. Eventually Lydia's despair eased and we said our goodbyes. The next day she phoned to thank me. "I'm so grateful for the way you helped me through this," she said.

At first I was surprised. After all, I had done nothing except be there for her. But after I had my own venting session with another friend later that evening, I realized that my focused silence had some merit. In fact, most relationship experts agree that talk is cheap; it's listening that's rare and valuable. It enables you not only to hear what the other person is saying, but also to gain insight into her thoughts and feelings. And for the speaker, that level of understanding translates into concern and respect.

Unfortunately, listening isn't as easy as it sounds. Thanks to schedules filled to the brim with family, work, and social commitments, multitasking has become the m.o. for the masses. And I'm as guilty as the next guy — my fatigue may have been the only thing stopping me from folding laundry or checking my e-mail while Lydia talked that afternoon.

Another barrier to listening is our wiring: Most of us take in only about half of what's being said during a conversation, according to the International Listening Association, a Falls River, Wisconsin, organization dedicated to the study and development of listening skills. Research shows that we speak at 125 to 150 words per minute, yet think at 500 words a minute. So with nearly 400 words of thinking time available to us each minute that we're listening, drifting off is a pretty natural reaction.

While it can be tough to focus at times, it's a skill worth cultivating. With a little practice — employing the techniques on the next page — you can become a better listener.

7 Listening Techniques

  1. 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.
  2. 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."
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?"
  7. 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.