You're listening to your friend, Bob, tell you about his recent trip to Alaska. He took a whale watching excursion with his wife and is talking excitedly. But what you are really doing is thinking about finding a way to insert your story of whale watching. Because it is even better than Bob's.
But is it really? Had you truly attended what Bob was saying, you would have heard about the video he wants to show you of the one whale that nearly capsized the boat!
There is a distinct difference between speaking to someone who is genuinely listening to you, and someone who is merely physically present while thinking of what they want to say.
Interacting with a genuine listener feels good and facilitates warm memories and positive outcomes. Speaking with someone who is too busy thinking about what they want to say, or is distracted by other thoughts or activities feels unsettling and promotes unfavorable memories as well as negative outcomes.
Whether in a social or business context, it is always better to leave your conversation partners with fond memories and a desire to see you more, or do business with you.
Professionals like psychotherapists describe listening skills as "attending skills". The core skill is taking in the information you hear without your reply running through your head. Most poor communicators are attending to what they want to say to you more than they attend to what you are actually saying.
If you think back on recent interactions that felt uncomfortable, you will likely find the common denominator is the person or persons you were conversing with didn't seem to be interested, appeared distracted, or gave the impression that they felt like what they were saying was more important than what you were saying.
The single most important thing you can do to enhance your conversations is attend them. Silence your brain and really hear and experience the speaker's words. Break the habit of attending to other thoughts and activities while in the presence of others.
Respond with eye contact and a nod of your head, or a paraphrase of what was just said and a "tell me more."
If you find yourself reverting to old habits of letting your mind wander, or focusing on what you will say rather than giving attention to what is being said, just remember to have an A.L.E.:
Attend. Give full attention to the person speaking and nothing else. This takes practice, but think of it as a lifelong exercise with lifelong benefits.
Look. Eye contact is key when staying in tune with a conversation. Present yourself as a good listener by looking at the speaker, but notice if he becomes uncomfortable with your eye contact. A good rule of thumb is to observe how long the speaker maintains eye contact with you and match the pace. For example, if he looks away briefly about every 30 seconds, it is a good idea for you to also look away about every 30 seconds.
Engage. Your body language tells your conversation partner how interested you are, and it doesn't lie! Adjust your body to face the speaker and square your shoulders with hers. Also, lean in just a few degrees. These are subtle, yet powerful positions that tell another person, "I'm interested."
Listening is a skill that is worth the practice to acquire. Learn to savor your interactions with other people, and you will draw more of them to you.