In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, author Stephen R Covey - an American businessman - outlines the positive habits you need to develop in order to be more effective and successful.

The fifth of these habits is seek first to understand, then to be understood. In other words, to be an effective communicator you should develop good listening skills, not just good reading, writing and speaking skills. 

According to Covey there are 5 levels of listening. One is ignoring, where you're not listening to the other person at all. The next is pretending you're listening, by interjecting the odd, ‘Yes', ‘Right', or ‘Okay'. Selective listening is an improvement over the first 2, but it means you only hear certain parts of a conversation. Attentive listening, meanwhile, means you're paying attention and concentrating on what someone is saying. But few people, he says use the highest form of listening - empathic listening.

Empathetic listening means listening to understand, rather than to reply. Most people, says Covey, are primarily interested in being understood, in getting their point across. But by doing that you may not actually hear much of what the other person is saying, because while they're speaking you're busy planning how you'll express yourself, what you're going to say, what questions you should ask - and so on.

Indeed, according to Dr Ralph Nichols - who's often described as the father of the study of listening - has suggested people spend 40% of their time listening to others but retain only 25% of what they hear. Dr Nichols - who died in 2006 - stressed the importance of listening for more than 40 years. “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood,” he said. “The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”

5 listening skills tips

Most people, you could argue, would prefer to speak rather than listen. So developing your skills as a listener may be easier said than done. Here are some tips to get you started:

1. Give the other person your undivided attention

Try to get rid of anything that may distract you, such as phones or other people who may come along and interrupt the conversation (or others close by whose conversations might break your attention). Aim to focus on nothing but what the other person is saying.

Get comfortable and try to relax physically, and if you find it difficult to concentrate on what they're saying, try repeating their words in your mind as they say them to help yourself stay focused. Also try not to judge or trivialise what they're saying in your mind, just listen.

2. Notice nonverbal communication

So much of what someone says is communicated not verbally, but through body language (according to Covey, communications experts say only 10% of communication is represented by words, but 60% is conveyed through body language). Note how the other person is sitting - are they relaxed or rigid? Are their speech patterns hurried or are they talking more slowly and smoothly?

Noticing what the other person is saying nonverbally will allow you to observe the emotions behind their words - for instance, whether they're happy, satisfied, angry, resentful, frustrated or indifferent. Again, try not to judge this non-verbal communication, simply recognise it.

3. Never interrupt the other person

One of the golden rules of any type of effective listening is never to interrupt the other person. Wait until they've finished speaking and putting their point across before you say anything - unless, of course, you need to ask them to repeat something they've said (if you do, try not to interrupt them mid flow, wait for a natural pause before speaking up).

You can also use your own body language to show them you're being attentive - try to make sure your posture is open, for instance (stay relaxed, lean in towards them slightly and make good eye contact).

4. Think about what you're going to say

When the other person has had their say, don't rush to reply or jump to any conclusions. Take your time before you speak, and think about what you're going to say beforehand. If necessary, tell them you're thinking about what they said. You may also want to make sure you've understood them correctly by asking questions and repeating what you think they've said before offering your reply.

Once you're happy that you understand what they've said, be open and honest in what you say back to them, and - if you don't agree with what they've said - state your opinions, but in a respectful way (imagine how you'd like them to speak to you if the situation was reversed).

5. Practice makes perfect

Practice your new listening skills at every opportunity. You'll need to use a lot of concentration and determination to improve them, especially if - like most people - your old listening skills left a lot to be desired. Most importantly, keep the idea of empathy in mind.

As Covey says in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, ‘In empathetic listening, you listen with your ears, but you also, and more importantly, listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behaviour. You use your right brain as well as your left, You sense, you intuit, you feel.'

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