You don’t hear much about listening skills.

All jokes aside, listening skills are hugely underrated. For most, they barely count as skills at all.

This is a big mistake. It leads us to think that we all are perfect listeners by default, and that listening skills aren’t something we can work on.

Consequently, demonstrating listening skills is not easy.

Good listening skills often go unnoticed, but that’s still no reason to ignore them. Employers will be impressed by job candidates and employees with the ability to listen effectively, whether they’re conscious of that fact or not.

Why are listening skills important?

We all know when we’re not being listened to.

Often we put it down to rudeness, a lack of interest, or poor concentration. It could be all these things, but they all count as symptoms of poor listening skills.

Managers and leaders of all kinds, for example, will spend most of their day listening. Their ability to retain information, discriminate between vital and unimportant details, and the impression they give to those speaking to them, are key to good performance.

But listening is important for all of us in building and strengthening relationships, ensuring we make the most of formal and informal conversations, and getting the most out of time spent in meetings.

Here are 7 ways you can improve your listening skills today.

1) Stop talking!

Listening starts when talking ends. But even that is not quite enough.

Bad listeners are often those who spend the time between talking thinking about what it is they’re going to say next.

And they are often those who also spend so much time talking that they reduce the space others feels they have to contribute to the conversation.

There is no better way to stifle a conversation and kill a dialogue.

To become a good listener, you’re simply going to need to focus on what other people are saying, not what you could add.

It’s the least you can do.

2) Maintain eye contact

Making eye contact with the person you are talking to reassures them that you’re listening, but also helps you to focus on what they are saying.

Engaging in this way with others creates a personal connection, helping to establish a relationship with the speaker.

In this way, listening goes a long way to forming personal bonds with your colleagues and contacts, easing communication in the future.

Breaking eye contact during a conversation will distract and discourage the speaker, signalling a lack of interest on your part.

3) Give listening cues

In addition to maintaining eye contact, there are many ways you can reassure a speaker that you’re engaged and interested in what they have to say.

Remaining silent with a neutral facial expression will probably cause them to question whether or not you are following.

Without interrupting, try to nod occasionally, say “yes” or “I see” when appropriate, adjusting your facial expression and body language to reflect what you think about what they’re saying.

While some may think this can be distracting for a speaker, if done naturally it will more likely act as encouragement, allowing them to ease into the conversation and speak more freely.

4) Ask questions

A very important listening skill is knowing when to speak up.

While interrupting a speaker in full flow can be jarring and disrupt the conversation, intervening with appropriate questions or comments can provide a vital spur to the dialogue.

Asking well-timed and relevant questions also demonstrates how much you’ve been paying attention, demonstrating to the speaker that you understand and that you’re deeply interested in what they have to say.

They will also ensure you get the information you want from the dialogue.

Good questions make for good conversations.

Politely introduce questions and comments before the moment is lost – it’s unlikely you’ll be able to rewind successfully later and get back to the topic.

5) Remove distractions

We live in an age of distractions.

Our listening skills are being tested more than ever by all the notifications and alerts we receive on a regular basis.

When you’re being spoken to, put your phone away. There is nothing worse for a speaker than to have to compete for your attention with a device, never knowing if you are really engaged with the conversation.

You’ll find it hard to concentrate on what is being said if your attention is being pulled elsewhere.

Similarly, if sitting at a computer, avert your gaze from the screen and toward whoever is speaking to you.

Environment is important for maintaining a balanced, effective dialogue, so be sure to change location if necessary.

6) Smile!

Presenting a positive, upbeat appearance when being spoken to encourages the speaker and creates a warm atmosphere for your conversation to develop.

Smiling is contagious, and will encourage the person you are speaking with to enjoy the conversation, relaxing into the dialogue and speaking more freely.

This way you will create a firmer bond and develop a sense of trust, sparking a more honest and open dialogue.

7) Practice makes perfect

You’ve been listening all your life. But you may not yet have developed particularly good listening skills.

As we’ve just covered, there are distractions and common problems to overcome in establishing effective, balanced dialogues.

Adopting all the advice we’ve suggested here may not be easy at first, but as you become a better listener all these tips should start falling into place.

Considering how much of our time is spent in conversation with others, you should start feeling the positive effects pretty quickly.

Becoming a better listener won’t just help you do your job better, it will help you build and reinforce relationships, save you time, eventually make you more knowledgeable, and boost your analytical abilities.

Ways to listen better