There’s no question that public speaking is an extremely important skill. After all, if you can’t convey your message in a manner that’s both relatable and inspiring, how can you ever expect to encourage and influence others?
And yet, there’s one skill that’s massively underrated and often entirely overlooked: active listening.
Active, or empathetic listening, is a technique in which you listen to another person — not to critique, convey, object or convince — solely to comprehend.
Believe it or not, listening is a complex skill. How many people do you know who cut you off mid-sentence because they’re already predicting what you’re going to say? Or maybe you have a colleague whose ego is so self-inflated that he or she insists on talking at you instead of listening to you. Whatever the case, active listening is actually quite difficult for most people to achieve.
Why? Because we’re programmed to believe that the more you say, show or do, the more recognition you’ll receive. We’re taught that listening in silence is akin to weakness, when in reality it’s a sign of strength.
As the saying goes: “Most people don’t listen to understand; they listen to reply.”
So without further ado, here are six steps to improve your active listening and become a more productive, successful and engaging leader.
1. Breathe and Relax
Whenever you’re stressed or worked up, your ability to listen and comprehend is severely limited. One of the simplest and most important steps you can take is to slow your breathing and relax your muscles. When we’re tense, our body produces cortisol and adrenaline, neither of which allow us to listen proficiently. If you struggle with this, try box breathing. It’s been proven to reduce anxiety and increase brain elasticity.
2. Be Patient
Some people really struggle to sit in silence when someone else is talking. Allow others the proper space and time to completely finish and elaborate on their thoughts. There’s nothing more annoying than someone who is constantly cutting others off mid-sentence. But let’s be honest, we’re all guilty of this from time to time. You can train yourself to be patient by waiting until someone has completely finished speaking; then, take a few seconds to really process what they have said. You’ll actually find you seem more knowledge, calm and in control of a situation when you take a few moments to respond.
3. Focus On The Moment
Our modern world is a frenzy of endless digital connectivity, so many of us are finding it increasingly difficult to stay focused on one task at a time. Listening to someone else speak is a case in point. When we say “focus on the moment,” it’s important to remember not to let past conversations or relationships interfere with your current feelings. If you enter a conversation with a pre-conceived idea of what the result will be, chances are you’re creating a story or narrative that isn’t necessarily true. Let the past stay in the past; this will allow you to become a much more effective listener, because you’re framing speech within the present context.
4. Body Language
Active listening isn’t just about hearing, either. In fact, studies show that upwards of 80-90 percent of all communication between humans is non-verbal. Becoming a master listener necessitates an active interest in body language, facial expressions and other non-verbal signs. When you’re listening to someone else speak, pay attention to the way they stand. How are they using their hands? Are their arms crossed? Are they tapping their feet? Are they smiling? Frowning?
Typically, negative body language manifest itself as: pursed lips, furrowed forehead, lack of eye contact, shoulders rising and turned inward, crossed arms, nail biting, feet withdrawn beneath a chair, among others.
Positive body language demonstrates the opposite: consistent eye contact, a peaked head position nodding in agreement, leaning inward towards another, an upright (but not stiff) chest, arms at the waist, palms showing and a foot forward position.
5. Work On Your Empathy
Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share feelings with another,” so if you struggle to listen effectively it’s likely you need to work on becoming more empathetic. One of the most powerful ways to become more empathetic is to put yourself in another person’s shoes. Remember, you’re not the only one in a conversation, nor does any one person know all the answers to everything. The next time you’re listening to someone else speak, be open to the idea that they might have a different way of doing or viewing things. Examine your attitude and show empathy — these are two winning attributes to becoming a more effective and efficient listener.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.