Five Ways to Be a Better Listener (Hint: Shhh!)

04/29/2015 05:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2015

Are you listening?

I remember that phrase from my childhood. And wow do I remember using that phrase with my own children. And with my husband. Even the dog seemed less-than-impressed with my diatribe - unless I was holding my walking shoes and a leash. Then I was the most popular human on earth.

Hillary Clinton has recently embarked on a 'Listening Tour,' a throwback to her campaign for the New York Senate seat that she ultimately won. Why?

I'm the first to admit I don't completely understand what goes in to running a successful campaign. I've never done one. Nor do I plan to. That's a fact. Another fact: Clinton is always surrounded by controversy. People either love her or...don't. But her first Listening Tour served her, and New York, quite well. She nodded with empathy, drank coffee with vigor, walked through rural towns happily in heels and those beloved pantsuits, and even personally called many of her constituents.

Clinton's current campaign is attracting its normal amount of love/hate opinions that political figures are forced to carry around everywhere - a burden that must get heavier as the days go by. After all, one of the many goals of anyone running for office is to make sure everyone likes them. Because as the all-too-familiar saying goes, people vote for people they like. And people tend to like those who pay attention to their needs and wants: to people who listen.

So the question becomes, exactly what makes a good listener? Is it just the eye contact and the polite nod, or is there more to the listening than meets the eye. (Or ear?)

I've been writing and talking and teaching The Fine Art of Small Talk for a long time. Longer than Hillary has been wearing pantsuits. But nothing makes for better small talk than being a good listener. Really. Listening more and talking less wins every time.

So how can we all become better listeners? It's not hard, actually. The first step is to stop talking all the time. Here are some other tips and tricks:

Do Some Homework
Heading to an event with colleagues or acquaintances? Remind yourself of what you may already know about fellow attendees (Jane moved to a new home recently or Bob just sold his company). Conversation starters like these will get the other person talking and give you a chance to listen.

Act Interested
Show true interest in everyone you meet, even shy people have something to say. I can't tell you how many times I've been happily surprised by a conversation with a person I initially labeled as boring or arrogant. People like to talk about themselves. Let them.

Make Eye Contact
Eye contact is an obvious way to show people you are interested, but many conversation partners miss this crucial piece. Looking away makes you appear like a fugitive or a lunatic. Scanning the room for someone 'better' makes you look like a snob.

Say the Person's Name
And do it right away - so you don't forget. If you are introduced to Sid, use his name immediately and then throughout the conversation. Saying Pleasure to meet you, Sid. Is this your first time at the conference? will let Sid know you are paying attention and will help you remember Sid's name when you need it, like when you are looking for a job. Or the bar.

Use Body Language
Smile, nod, offer a light laugh when appropriate. This lets your conversation partner know you are listening. Practice getting rid of your nervous habits: hand twisting, coughing, using "um" more than 100 times a minute and playing with your hair are all indicative of people who are uncomfortable. And if you are uncomfortable, so are your small talk partners.

Human interaction should be just that - an interaction. By demonstrating good listening skills, you are showing another person that you think they matter, that you value their opinion, that you find them interesting, that you adore their pantsuit.

You can do this! You hear me?