12/07/2014 10:11 am ET Updated Feb 06, 2015

How to Listen Like a Pro

Think of someone who makes you feel comfortable and relaxed no matter how chaotic your life may be. Someone who makes you feel that all is right with the world even if it may be crashing down in front of you. When you need comfort, who do you turn to? My guess is whoever this person, he or she possesses one vitally important trait: good listening skills. Being a good listener can be the difference that makes the difference in so many areas in life. For example, a partner who seems to understand and one who doesn't, or a manager who just "gets it" or one who is missing the boat entirely.

Here's how to perfect your listening skills:

  • Eye contact. By looking the person in the eye you impart to them that you're paying attention, you care, and that you're listening. Don't stare at the person dead in the eyes as this can be seen as too intense or even feel intimidating, but rather, look slightly off center to the left or right eye.
  • Ask open-ended questions. This will show you're interested in what the person is saying and could possibly help the speaker to open up and share more information. That said, avoid questions that have a "yes" or "no" response as that would dead end the conversation. For example, if someone is telling about an event they went to, instead of asking "Did you like it?" Say "Tell me about it."
  • Be empathetic. This is accomplished through many things you'll do. Some are verbal, others non-verbal. Identify what their emotions are and connect with them. For instance, if a friend is telling you about a recent health scare and they're feeling anxious, you might say "I understand how difficult it might make you feel to not know exactly what is going on yet." Also, providing words such as "yes" or "I understand" while they are speaking will help them to feel listened to. Non-verbal ways to build rapport and show you care would be to sit with an open stance as opposed to folded arms, and to nod reassuringly.
  • Don't jump to a solution. If you do, then you might not be fully listening, because you're strategizing while they're talking. Sometimes what people want, and need, is simply someone to listen and not necessarily a solution. If they ask for your advice, then that's a different story and you can provide it.
  • Avoid bringing yourself into the conversation. By saying things like "that's exactly what I went through" you run the risk of alienating the person. Usually people, on an emotional level, don't have the same experiences, so by saying that you did you might end up showing a lack of sensitivity and might minimize their experience.
  • Make it all about them and put yourself in their shoes. Rather than thinking about a response, try to understand what they're going through at an emotional level. For example, if a friend tells you about losing a job, think about their situation and how it might impact them, not how you would feel if you were in their situation.
  • Don't interrogate or interrupt. Although these might seem like obvious things to avoid, people need to be reminded. So many of my clients, when talking about their spouses, say that they feel they are being cross-examined by an attorney or that they aren't being listened to at all due to the frequent interruptions. Stay focused on the person in front of you. Let them talk. You can gently ask questions later.
For more highly effective communication tips check out my book BE FEARLESS: Change Your Life in 28 Days.