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What’s the difference between hearing and listening? While it might seem like they’re two sides of the same coin, there’s actually a huge gap between them.

The classic research on the subject, Edgar Dales’ Cone of Experience, suggests that we only remember between 25 and 50 percent of what we hear. In an hour-long meeting, we remember maybe 30 minutes, if we’re lucky.

Hearing is when you’re taking in what someone is saying but not necessarily engaging with it and making the speaker feel heard. Listening, on the other hand, means you’re in dialog with what they’re saying and making them feel you’re right there with them, every step of the way.

Listening is a skill, which means you can practice and get better at it. We’ll walk you through how to notice when you’re not really listening, and the skills you can cultivate to get better.

Listening to understand, not to respond

One of the biggest differences between hearing and listening has to do with your attitude toward what they’re saying. Are you listening to someone to understand them? Or are you just waiting for your turn to speak, while perhaps making notes of specific things to respond to?

As Caren Osten, writing for Psychology Today, explains, “We often think that we are listening, but we’re actually just considering how to jump in to tell our own story, offer advice, or even make a judgment—in other words, we are not listening to understand, but rather to reply.” The difference here is a mental shift you need to make: Listen to someone not just for information, but because you value the insights they have.

More importantly, there’s value to making someone feel like they’re being heard, above and beyond whatever the goal of that specific conversation. Valuing what they have to say and their conclusions (over your need to get to what you think) encourages them to work harder and take the initiative. And even if you already know what someone is going to say or recommend, there are benefits to making them feel like you value their input instead of cutting them off.

Practice active listening

The key to engaging with someone and making them feel like they’re being heard is to practice active listening. Have you ever talked to someone and felt like the conversation was completely lopsided? Active listening lets you make a conversation feel like a collaboration, even if they’re the one doing most of the talking.

One of the key ways you show that you’re listening is with eye contact. When you’re talking to someone, you don’t want to feel like their attention is elsewhere. If you’re ever having a conversation with someone and you notice that they keep trying to track your gaze to see what you’re looking at instead of them, you could probably stand to work on eye contact.

A good way to practice is to reflect back and see if you can remember the eye color of anyone you’ve spoken with. (Constant eye contact can be a pretty intense experience for both parties, so it’s okay if you need to take a break by looking at the spot at the top of their nose between their eyes.)

Another key part of active listening is to find ways to show that you’re listening. Throwing in a few “mhmms” and “yeahs” into your listening can be a way to signal you’re following along with what someone is saying without interrupting them.

Even more importantly, make sure that you’re paying attention to  . Make sure that you’re leaning in and appear attentive and engaged. Even if you don’t necessarily want to spend most of your morning in a meeting, you don’t need to tell everyone that you don’t want to be there with your body language.

Show you’ve been listening, not just hearing

Finally, you need to make sure you’re taking the time to show that you’ve listened to what someone has said. Respond with phrases like, “So what I’m hearing is… ” or, “It sounds like what you’re saying is… .” Rephrasing what someone has said helps you make sure that you’re on the same page, while also giving you the chance to clear up any miscommunication.

Ask if you can give advice

Be sure to ask if the other person wants advice before you give it. Many times, we talk to people to vent or get affirmation that what we’re doing makes sense. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re looking for advice, and a little misplaced honesty can get you in a lot of trouble. Make sure that, before you give someone your opinion, they’re actually asking for it.

Take note of who is doing most of the talking

If you’re in a position of power in meetings, it’s worth considering who feels empowered to speak and who might not feel comfortable expressing their opinions to the group.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to punish people who talk a lot. Instead, look for opportunities to get those who don’t speak as often involved in meetings. Solicit their input, and reap the benefits of more diverse opinions and more creative approaches to problem-solving.

What you can do right now 

Making someone feel heard is a key skill you need to cultivate if you want to make the people you work with feel appreciated for everything that they bring to the table. Here’s what you can do right now to listen to others instead of hearing them.

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