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How to be a good listener

Here's how you can absorb more information, and increase your emotional intelligence.

Jen Weigel

Lessons for life

March 21, 2011

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Did you know that March is International Listening Awareness Month? According to the International Listening Association (ILA), we only retain about 50 percent of what we hear immediately after we hear it, and only another 20 percent beyond that. So how can we get those percentages to rise?

"We tested more than a half million people, and the best listeners are unconsciously mimicking the people they hear," says Travis Bradberry, bestselling author of "Emotional Intelligence 2.0" (TalentSmart, $19.95). "When you're caught up with thinking about what you're going to say next, you aren't listening. But if you stop what you're doing, and really focus on the person talking, you activate neurons in your brain and your body starts to hone in on the other person. This helps you retain more information."

Bradberry says no two people will have the same account of an event, no matter how much they were paying attention.

"When a bank robbery happens and there are five different folks on the witness stand, they all saw the same thing, but their description of what happened will not be the same," Bradberry explains. "This is because they all had different emotional states. We found in our research that if the event has less emotion, the results will be more similar, but if it's dangerous or highly emotional, the stories vary greatly."

In order to become a better listener, Bradberry says we need to increase our emotional intelligence. Here are five of Bradberry's essential strategies.

Don't take notes at meetings. Try watching who's speaking instead – pay attention to what you miss while you're usually looking down at your notebook.

Clear your mind. Focus when you're talking to others. Pay attention to what you're thinking when they're speaking; if you're planning out your response rather than listening to them, you need to work on your focus.

Absorb the feedback. Don't just react – be sure you are really taking in the information the other person is giving you. Ask questions or ask for specific examples if you still want clarification.

Don't argue, understand. Having a tough conversation? Don't just plan your rebuttal – really listen, then start with where you agree and move the discussion toward a solution by asking them to help you understand their point.

Body language is key. Study your conversation partner. Are they making hand gestures? Are they slouching or crossing their arms? Are they relaxed or uncomfortable? This can help you understand what they're not telling you as much as what they ARE telling you.

Just like building a muscle, Bradberry says with practice, even the terrible listeners can transform over time.

"In the workplace there's this idea that you always have to be doing something. People are emailing during conference calls and massive mistakes are taking place and it creates a snowball of misinformation. You don't have to keep shooting yourself in the foot. This absolutely can be learned. It's simply a matter of putting effort into it. "

jweigel@tribune.com