If I were to ask you if you know anyone who is not a good listener, I bet you’d have at least one name to share. We all know that person. The one who asks a question that, had they been listening, they would have known the answer to. The one who interrupts the story so they can share theirs? What about the person who simply never stops talking to take the time to see if anyone else has anything to say?

It’s always easier to find this fault in another person, but have you ever considered that you might be that person? I know I’ve been guilty of at least one of the above scenarios. (sigh) Despite knowing what’s best, we often default to what’s easiest.

Becoming a better listener requires creating new habits. It’s similar to starting a new exercise plan or eating healthier. Up until now, you’ve been doing one thing and you’ve discovered that you need to make a different choice to be a better you. Listening is going to require some conscious changes in your conversations.

1. Ask questions

The easiest way to become a better listener is to think of a game of hot potato. Get rid of that potato as soon as it touches your hands, now someone else is holding the conversation in their hands. Ask a question that requires more than a yes or no answer. Better than asking, “How was your weekend?” you could ask, “Tell me about your weekend”. If they say they went to their cottage, you could ask, “Where is your cottage? How many years have you been going there? What types of things do you do when you’re at your cottage?” There’s always one more question you could ask, but be sure to ask with genuine interest.

If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear – Mark Twain

2. Pay attention

As your friend is answering your questions, you need to really be paying attention to what they’re saying. Only after you’ve listened to their reply, should you think of your next question. If you’re thoughts are busy formulating your next question, you may miss important cues. Observe not just the words they’re saying, but their tone and mood. Be sensitive if you notice they don’t want to talk about something. Truly listening means you know when to be quiet and stop talking.

Hearing is listening to what is said. Listening is hearing what isn’t said. – Simon Sinek

3. No interrupting

This shouldn’t have to be said, but we’ve probably all been guilty of this at least once in our lives. A story will pop into your head and you’re bursting at the seams anxious to share. Maybe you don’t want to forget what you were going to say or maybe you don’t want someone else to jump in with their story leaving you no time for yours. Wait. Keep listening. When you’re focused only on listening, others will share so much more than you thought.

My step-dad was a slow, thoughtful speaker. He didn’t rattle on and on about nothing, so when he wanted to share a story, you made sure to be quiet and just listen. There might be pauses between sentences. This was not meant to be an opening for you to jump in with your thoughts. It was a simple pause before he continued. If you allow that pause when someone else is speaking, you may be surprised to discover that they will continue talking without the need for more questions.

When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen. – Ernest Hemingway

4. Keep silent

When everyone is sharing their story and you have a great similar story, it’s hard to hold your tongue. One example of this is mothers sharing their pregnancy/birth stories. Whenever there’s a pregnant girl in the office, everyone who has ever been pregnant wants to share their dramatic saga. Another great example is sharing your Florida theme park vacation. Again, we all want to chime in and share about our long drive, long lines or getting sick or sunburned. Yes, you have something to say. But for now, just listen. Totally. Completely. Decide that it’s okay if you don’t share your version today.

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply – Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change