Have you ever been accused of not listening?

I suspect that most people have received that type of criticism, yet I'm not sure most people realize just how important listening is to our daily life. Listening is a communication tool; in fact, it can be considered the foundation of all of our communication. For instance, if you compare the elements of communication such as reading, talking, writing and listening, you'll find that listening takes up the greatest amount of your time -- anywhere from 40 to 50 per cent.

Why is listening such an important skill? First, listening helps us to connect with people. Effective listening, taking in and absorbing information from others, serves to help people respond to us in a positive manner. Good listening that is both non-judgmental and empathetic encourages and invites people to continue their discussion so that some action might arise.

However, listening is not the same as hearing. Listening is a skill that demands an active effort, while hearing is more of a "flow through" process. Just because you hear something doesn't mean you understand it. Listening is a way to acknowledge others and show respect for them. It is also a means of reducing stress and can serve as the basis for co-ordination, negotiation and problem solving. Listening requires that you suspend what you are doing, give your full attention to the speaker and suspend your own point of view while the individual shares their information with you.

Listening is especially important for managers and supervisors. Leaders who listen to their employees often learn about opportunities for productivity improvements. Effective listening demonstrates a sense of concern for staff and it is these managers who more easily gain the trust, respect and loyalty of their staff. When effective listening is part of the organizational culture, you will find high levels of productivity and high levels of employee morale.

Typically, most of us engage in at least three levels of listening every day. When you are busy and engaged, you most often listen at the first level. In other words, you might be hearing some conversation, but you are actually tuning out and not listening. Perhaps the conversation doesn't really affect you and/or you have little interest in the topic. Sometimes you might even fake attention but in reality, you are thinking about something else and/or preparing your own response before the person finishes talking.

At the second level, you might be listening to some extent, but you are missing the deeper meaning of what is being said. In other words, you may be paying attention to the words, but you are missing the emotion that is coming with it. You are missing the feelings and this can lead to misunderstanding. In fact, much of the confusion that creates conflict between people arises because the speaker is led to believe you understand their point of view while in reality, you have only listened to the words. You have totally missed the feelings and emotions and therefore you truly do not understand where the speaker was coming from.

The third level of listening is where you want to be in all of your communications. This is known as empathetic listening, where you try to put yourself in the speaker's position to understand their point of view. It means that as a listener, you acknowledge the individual both verbally and non-verbally, you focus undivided attention on this person and you suspend your own feelings or judgment until the communication is concluded.

I am confident most people want to become better listeners, especially those striving for leadership and management roles as well as those in the helping professions. But how should one go about improving their listening skills. Some of the following activities will go a long way to being a better listener.

Undertake a quick self-assessment -- Take time to assess your own listening skills immediately after a conversation. Ask yourself, did you tune the person out? Did you focus all of your attention or did your mind wander? Did you interrupt frequently? Did you guess what the person was going to say before they said it? Were you formulating advice and response before the speaker was finished? Did you listen to the emotions that came with the words? If you engaged in any of these behaviours, there is certainly room for improvement.

What's your family history? -- You may not realize it, but listening is a learned skill and one that begins early in your family history. Some of the messages you might have received in your family include, "children should be seen and not heard." All of these messages affect how you listen. For instance, it may cause resistance or it may have taught you to force yourself on others by continually talking without stopping to listen to others. What is your family history?

Where is your self-esteem? -- Effective listening requires that you feel good about yourself as well as others. People who feel inferior often listen with victim-like body language. They are afraid to ask questions for clarification and as a result, they often misunderstand directions or misinterpret messages. Still others who see themselves as superior are viewed by others as not listening to contrary points of view. Those individuals with good self-esteem will be open and relaxed in their communication and will be viewed as good listeners.

Recognize barriers to listening -- When you are preparing to listen, take notice of the physical barriers that will affect good conversation. Choose to sit at a table or beside a person rather than sitting across a desk because the desk might suggest a superior power relationship which isn't truly there. Be aware of and pay attention to red flag words that might trigger an unwelcome personal emotion that will interfere with the listening of either party.

Pay attention to body language and tone -- Effective listening also means paying attention to those little body movements including tone of voice or the personal nuances that can give off unwanted subtle messages. Avoid facial expressions such as rolling your eyes, playing with your hair, creating external noises and/or playing loudly with your pen.

Listening is one of the most important skills that you can develop to be a better communicator. However, listening skills are built on habits that you've grown up with and require a concentrated effort to improve. Failing to do so can not only have a serious impact on your ability to communicate effectively, but poor listening skills can stymie your entire career.