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Tip 4. Recognize That Listening Is Not Waiting Your Turn to Talk.

Salespeople are often surprised to find that listening is one of the key ingredients of the most successful performers and the downfall of the poor performers. For them, awareness is half the battle. The same can be said of listening by most other professionals. Once you become aware of the benefits of listening and the pitfalls of not listening, you’ve gone a long way toward making improvement. The absence of talk is not the same as listening.

Tip 5. Avoid “Listening” as a Retreat.

Those who are afraid to speak their mind on an issue, those who don’t want to risk being wrong, those who are tired, and those who don’t want to “get involved and make connections”—those people often pretend that they’re listening. They may be looking at you, but they’re not listening; they’re just not talking. When you recognize this habit or attitude in yourself, be aware of the difference between that and real listening. Listening takes energy and requires reflective talking; retreating is a mental recess. People you’re “listening” to and encouraging to continue with a slight nudge of a question every so often will not be fooled. They may continue to carry the conversational ball along for you, but afterward they will feel let down, if not resentful.

Tip 6. Listen With Compassion.

Some people listen with a superior tone, a critical spirit, or aloofness. In addition to speaking this way, they listen with the same attitude: eyebrows raised, scowling mouth, glaring eyes, folded arms, smirking lips. This behavior does not encourage people to open up and speak their mind. Nor does it free them to think reflectively about themselves and change the way they’re acting or feeling.

Don’t confuse compassionate listening, however, with simply giving verbal reassurances: “That’s all right. You couldn’t help reacting that way.” “Well, don’t worry about it. Things have a way of working out.” “I know what you mean—bosses are all alike; you can’t trust them to be fair.” These responses are not helpful at all. They tend to brush the listener’s feelings aside and imply that she isn’t a good judge of what’s worth worrying about or working on, what’s a problem and what’s not, or what action to take or not take. Compassionate listening provides something more than glib assurances. It empowers people because it enables them to lower their defenses, share themselves, and find their own solutions in an accepting atmosphere.

Tip 7. Listen for Feelings as Well as Facts.

Noted clinical psychologist Carl Rogers believed strongly that a patient’s healing could be greatly speeded up by the simple act of having an analyst who really cared. “If I can listen to what he tells me, if I can understand how it seems to him, if I can sense the emotional flavor which it has for him, then I will be releasing potent forces of change within him.” Far too many people pay an analyst for what friends should and could do if they practiced listening for emotions. Letting the other person know that you understand the emotion behind his words gives him the satisfying sense of really being understood.

Tip 8. Listen for the Context.

When we read a news story about a cousin who shoots an uncle over a card game, the incident shocks us because of the enormity of the deed relative to the provocation. When such incidents occur, we can be sure that the immediate act was not the whole of the situation. Words and feelings always have a context. A friend says to you: “There are so many rumors going around in my company that you never know from one day to the next if we’re going to be merged, acquired, or just laid off. I’m not sure whether I’ll be canned or not. So I can’t decide about buying that house. We’d have to do some remodeling, for sure. The mortgage payments will really stretch us, and if Jill decides to switch careers, that’ll affect our cash flow severely. I’m totally puzzled about the next step.” With this comment, you have a broad context that lets you understand the whole situation: the rumors at work, the spouse ‘s job uncertainty, and the necessary remodeling.

But what if the friend says only: “I can’t decide about buying that house. We’d have to do some remodeling”? You might respond by talking about the pros and cons of the house—the location, the down payment, the interest rate, the condition of the inside. And you’d be way off base about the total meaning. Words do not mean much outside the context of someone’s experience and situation. Probe for the context so that you can listen adequately and respond appropriately.

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