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Are you a good listener?

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The ability to listen is the single most noticeable differentiating factor separating high level executives from all the others. Having worked with executives over a 35-year career in large organizations, this writer has come to the conclusion that listening skills may be the most important skill that a person should learn.

First, be aware of the bad listening habits that undercut interpersonal effectiveness. Here are three of the worst behavior traps we can easily fall into.

Cynical listening

It happens the first few seconds of listening. We naturally decide whether a source can be trusted. We become defensive when we believe the sender is trying to gain an advantage over us. Then, all opportunity to learn shuts down.

Offensive listening

We stop listening as soon as we catch the speaker in a mistake or contradiction. Some call it listening in problem solving mode. For example, you are telling me about you great trip to Florida. Then I learn it is in August. I immediately stop listening and can't wait to tell you how hot Florida can be in August.

Polite listening

Many of us are caught unable to answer a question because we were just going through the motions of appearing attentive. We are most inattentive when we are rehearsing our response, or we are listening to be polite rather than to communicate.

Active listening requires a lot of energy and focus

Listening requires active involvement with information from others and empathy with the situations of others. Look at the person. Suspend other things you are doing. Listen not merely to the words, but the feeling content. Be sincerely interested in what the other person is talking about.

Active listening requires engaging with the other person

The heart of active listening is when you are giving feedback. Restate what the person said. Ask clarification questions once in a while. Be aware of your own feelings and strong opinions. If you have to state your personal opinions, say them only after you have listened.

Listening takes time

See the accompanying video, where Legal Career Advisor James McCormick says it takes time to learn and learning is most done by trial and error. Listen for clues that you failed to listen such as "You didn't listen to this," or "Your reaction was different than I expected."

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