3 ways to be a better listener — and get ahead at work

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The saying "in one ear and out the other" captures just how easy it is to listen without actually processing what the other person is saying. While you might hear the words, you could be too distracted by text notifications, emails or your own thoughts to absorb them.

What makes a good listener? On the most basic level, it's the ability to ignore distractions, capture information and convey what was said through paraphrasing. A good listener also builds trust, relationships and a better understanding of friends, coworkers and family members, psychologist John M. Grohol notes on PsychCentral.

"Good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking," the Harvard Business Review adds.

Poor listening skills can have disastrous results in the workplace. "If one member of a team doesn’t listen to instructions, an entire project might fail," Ladan Nikravan, corporate communications manager at CareerBuilder, told Mic in an email interview. "If you fail to listen to a customer, the customer might not receive the service or product she expected. If this occurs repeatedly, it can ruin the company’s reputation."

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Don't let that happen to you. Instead, try these three steps to up your listening game and succeed at work.

1. Mute the thoughts in your head 

You know the other person is talking, but instead of listening, all you can think about is what you want to say next. 

Being too focused on your own ideas could result in not hearing a word that is said or worse — interrupting. "If you’re interrupting the person speaking to get your point across, you’re not listening," Nikravan said.

Rather than mentally looking for a gap in the conversation so you can interject, listen to what's being said and ask questions. For example, if the conversation is focused on a new product rollout, allow the manager to provide details and consider whether you fully understand every feature. 

If you ask open-ended questions like, "How is this new product different than others?" or "Why is the company introducing this new product?" you are fully immersed in the conversation and sharing ideas. 

2. Be curious, not combative

Too often we're more interested in defending our opinions and proving others wrong rather than listening with empathy. Poor listeners are often competitive and feel the need to debate, which may put the speaker on the defensive. 

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Instead of clinging to your own views, approach a difference of opinion with curiosity rather than judgment to help defuse any anger. Scientific American suggests asking questions like “Can you say a bit more about how that makes you feel?” or “Can you say more about that to help me understand?” to understand how the other person thinks.

Good questions help open a dialogue where both parties dig a little deeper. 

3. Tune in to body language

Listening isn't just about hearing what a person says. It's paying attention to their body language as well as your own. Nearly 80% of communication comes from nonverbal cues like facial expressions, posture, breathing and gestures, according to the Harvard Business Review, which adds, "You listen with your eyes as well as your ears."

Examples of effective nonverbal listening skills include making eye contact, uncrossing your arms and turning your shoulders so you’re facing the speaker. "Use your body to show your interest and concern, such as nodding your head," Nikravan said. 

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Whatever you do, don't fake engagement. Some people think they can "fake out the speaker" with body language, making it look like they're listening when they aren't. People pick up on those signs — such as overly-fixed eye contact, a forced smile or being fidgety during the conversation, according to Forbes.

Here's the bottom line: Be respectful and take your listening-skills pulse to  ensure you're truly present, attentive, open-minded and inquisitive. You'll be rewarded not only with better conversations, but better relationships too.

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