Put these policies into practice to step up your listening skills.

By Real Simple
Updated October 30, 2014
Naomi Wilkinson

The holidays can be a noisy time, with updates exchanged, opinions flying, and tales you've heard a million times retold. Yes, it's tempting to check out. But this is also a great opportunity to go in the opposite direction and cultivate your listening skills. Improving them will serve you in all your relationships, personal and professional. And it just might turn the madness of the season into a rich, rewarding experience.

"In a busy world, setting aside your own agenda and truly listening is one of the best ways to show people how important they are to you," says Pamela Cooper, a professor of communication studies at the University of South Carolina, in Beaufort, and the president of the International Listening Association. It may seem like a simple, effortless task, but mindful listening can be a challenge. "It requires you to step away from all your internal and external distractions, focus on the other person, and process the information," says Rebecca Shafir, a speech and language pathologist and the author of The Zen of Listening.

Some people are naturally good at this. (Remember that friend in college everyone turned to with problems?) But for most it takes a little guidance. Once you understand what might be getting in the way of hearing what others have to say, fixing it is just a matter of a few tricks.

Good listeners hide temptation. You already know how rude it is to check your phone for messages while someone is trying to talk to you. But even keeping your phone or tablet on the table can impede listening. In a recent study out of Virginia Tech, researchers found that when two people had a conversation in the presence of a cell phone—whether it was on, off, or on vibrate— they felt less empathy and connectedness than when they chatted with no phone in sight. "The phone represents your wider social network. It's also a compendium of information," says Shalini Misra, an assistant professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech and a coauthor of the study. "So even when it's not on, it can divert your attention to other thoughts and people." And the person you're with processes this. Make a point of stashing your phone out of sight whenever you want to listen to another person.

They listen with purpose. When you're watching a great TV show, your inner voice stays quiet as you become wrapped up in the plot, the characters, and the motivations. Of course, your aunt's story about her Florida trip might not be quite as intriguing as Orange Is the New Black. But by challenging yourself to truly connect with the person in front of you, you can keep your mind in the moment instead of allowing it to jump ahead or float back to the past. "If you're paying attention to someone's tone, her body movements, and the meaning behind her words, you activate different regions of your brain, such as memory and audio and visual processing, which can help put distractions into neutral," says Shafir. If you find your mind wandering, it's probably because Aunt Shirley has started repeating herself or moved into irrelevant territory. In that case, stop and ask a question. It can get both of you back on track.

They forget about their face. Believe it or not, worrying about what your face is doing when someone is looking you in the eye can distract you from listening. "A lot of people feel that they have to nod, raise their eyebrows, and say "uh-huh" to show they're paying attention," says Nichols. But, he points out, when you're truly invested in an experience (think about biting into a juicy apple or watching a ball game), the appropriate facial expression occurs naturally. So just relax and make eye contact.

They practice! While you're in the car or loading the dishwasher, tune your dial to NPR or a news station, listen for 10 minutes, then turn off the radio and talk (out loud, to yourself) about what you learned, adding your own comments. You're not attempting verbatim recall but a review of the big picture and some details. Shafir says that this helps train your brain to not only hear the words but also process their meaning.