Mind & Body

Learn to Listen

Master the art of listening and you'll be a better friend, co-worker, and person.

Learn to Listen
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Conversation is usually a give and take, but many people either take or tune out. Takers tend to jump in with stories about their exes when you confide your relationship woes to them. Those who tune out risk alienating people (if it's a friend who's sharing something important) or missing opportunities (if it's a boss or co-worker who's giving crucial information). Unfortunately, we aren't trained to be good listeners, and our busy culture discourages it—which means you may have done something equally annoying or hurtful to a friend, family member, or co-worker who was trying to communicate with you. To help you cultivate better conversations and more meaningful connections, we asked some experts for tips on how to listen.

LEARN TO FOCUS. If you're juggling a hundred tasks, it's easy for your mind to wander during a conversation. Meditation is a good way to sharpen your focus, says Ann Marie McKelvey, L.P.C.C., a life coach in Santa Fe, N.M., who suggests choosing a simple two-word phrase like just this, and saying it every day, inhaling the first word and exhaling the second. By disciplining your mind to focus on the here and now, you can stay in the moment without distraction and tune in more deeply, says McKelvey.

RESIST THE URGE TO INTERRUPT. Even if you're offering solid advice or genuine empathy, interrupting makes the conversation about you, not about the person who's trying to tell you something. Instead of asking yourself, "What do I want to say next?" ask yourself, "How can I listen in a way that will support this person?" suggests Kay Lindahl, author of The Sacred Art of Listening (Skylight Paths Publishing, 2004). That shifts the focus of the conversation from you to the person talking—where it truly belongs.

EMBRACE SILENCE. Many of us feel uncomfortable when there's a break in conversation, and we often rush to fill it. To get more comfortable with silence, Lindahl suggests taking time each day to be intentionally quiet—no music, television, or talking. Then you can let silence be a part of the conversation, which gives both people time and space to think carefully about what they want to say or to reflect on what the other person has said, leading to a deeper connection and more understanding, says Lindahl.

PRACTICE. Every conversation is an opportunity to flex your listening muscles. It isn't always easy but it's worth it. After all, says life coach McKelvey, "The greatest gift we can give anyone is to truly listen."