How to ListenAre you a good listener? Almost everyone thinks so. But I’ll let you in on a secret: Most people aren’t.

Don’t believe me? Try an experiment. Go to the grocery store, the post office, or your favorite restaurant – anywhere where people interact with each other – and listen to the conversations around you. Most people, however politely, are talking past each other: person A’s agenda is almost always responded to with person B’s agenda.

You see, most of us think listening is as natural as breathing. We hear what someone says, and then respond. It seems as easy as lobbing a tennis ball back and forth over the net. But in reality, good listening is a very active process known to very few people, most of whom are trained professionals. Join this small fraternity, and you will substantially boost your success with people in any situation.

Effective listening, better known as active or reflective listening, is a thoughtfully composed performance that makes people feel really good. Here are the steps behind it:

1. Give your undivided attention. In other words, give people the time and space to tell their story, using what psychologists call “minimal encourages”: eye contact, head nods, or short phrases like “Interesting!” or (my favorite) “Absolutely” that constantly check in with the other person.

2. Paraphrase the other person. Paraphrasing is a simple, mechanical, and powerful skill. You take their words, gift-wrap them in your own language, and hand their own thought right back to them. In the process, you let them know three important things: you heard them, you have processed what they are saying, and that it is safe to talk about it. Here are some examples:

“Our budgets are getting cut again” –> “Wow, it sounds like things are getting tight for you folks.”
“We have very specific requirements” –> “So we need to make sure things are done to spec.”
“The Cubs lost again” –> “Man, it sure looks like another frustrating year at Wrigley Field.” (Sorry Carol. At least I didn’t remind you that my Pirates made the playoffs.)

3. Share your thoughts or knowledge. Active listening isn’t just about hearing and reflecting on what the other person says. If it was, most conversations would feel like talking to a mirror – or worse, an interrogation. Putting just enough “you” in the conversation is important for creating a real dialogue. Just do it second, not first.

4. Provide active feedback. Ever have one of those situations where you feel you are standing on your head to listen to someone, but they are acting more and more frustrated? Guess what: you aren’t giving them enough feedback. Good listeners provide good feedback – like, “Wow, that must be really frustrating,” or, “I like the way you are thinking, Steve” – instead of just blandly “listening.”

5. Give a pro-active summary. Wrap up the conversation with a summary of what you have both discussed. I call it the “verbal receipt.” Few people ever do this, and when you do, you will seem like the smartest person in the room.

This five-step process changes everything about what people think of you, as well as how much you actually get to hear from others. Try it, and watch both your business and personal relationships get much richer, deeper, and more successful.