I can vividly recall a time when a colleague, let's call her Alice, came to see me to talk about some problems she has been experiencing with someone else in the team. I was the more senior person and prided myself on being a good listener and the 'go-to' person if anyone had any concerns they needed to talk about. So I was pleased that Alice had come to see me. It started off well, I asked a good open question that allowed Alice to talk. I then deployed the age-old technique of nodding, lots of eye-contact and giving reassuring "mmm-hmm" noises to encourage Alice to keep going. It was only when, at the end of the conversation, Alice asked me "so what do you think I should do about it?" I realised that I hadn't really listened to a word she was saying. Sure, I heard it, but I didn't listen to it. I also realised that I was so intent on demonstrating to Alice that I was a good listener that my brain was actually elsewhere - I was too busy thinking about making sure I looked like I was listening as opposed to really listening.
I think the 'talk less, listen more' rule is still generally a good one. I also think that good eye-contact, nodding and making reassuring noises is important. These are good techniques but they do not in themselves force you to actually listen, they only make a show that you are. So how can we listen better? I think much of this it is about making sure you are not distracted - whether that's distractions from your phone or emails or whether it is distractions through thinking about the next thing to say. It's about being aware that your brain will want to divert and think about other things (which will be a totally subconscious process) and as soon as we start thinking about other things, as soon as our focus is diverted, we won't listen effectively.
I like the advice in the article below. Listening isn't just about allowing the other person to talk - that is of course important, but it is also about creating a good conversation; an interaction on a human and personal level. It is about engaging with that person in a way that allows them to open up, share their concerns and talk through the options open to them. Finding that balance can be tricky - we don't want to dominate the conversation whilst at the same time we don't want to remain mute. The benefit is that when we are fully engaged in a conversation we tend not to divert our focus elsewhere, which means that it is much more likely we will be listening.
This will need practice. Good listening is an acquired skill - very few of us are naturally adept at it. So when having conversations consciously prepare yourself for the fact you need to focus on that person, tell your brain that you don't want it to divert elsewhere; remember to ask questions and engage with the individual in front of you. After the conversation think about what went well and what didn't go so well. Be honest with yourself - celebrate your successes and learn from your mistakes. Good listening is not easy, but with practice we can all become better listeners. As for Alice? I fessed up. I apologised to her, told her that my mind was distracted (which was not okay) and that I hadn't really listened. I asked her if she minded if we started the conversation again because what she had to say was clearly important and deserved a better conversation. Thankfully it worked and we had a great conversation, probably because I was actually listening second time round!