“You never listen to me!” to which I quickly reply, “Oh, I’ve heard every word you’ve said!”

Does that exchange sound familiar? Ask my wife and she’ll pull out a list a half-mile long referencing every time I’ve been guilty of hearing, but not really listening. But what’s the difference between hearing and listening, and why is one so much more important when it comes to our relationships with others?

Hearing could be best described as a physiological function which enables us to perceive the sounds of our environment and, barring any physical limitations, it happens effortlessly. On the other hand, listening is much more: It’s a cognitive process in which we interpret the sounds we hear and assign meaning to them. Whereas hearing is effortless, listening is a choice and requires concentration in order to capture the full meaning of what someone is trying to tell us. 

As you consider the difference between hearing and listening, it becomes clear that you could hear every word that someone says, but still miss the message altogether. With the pressures of life and business, it’s easy to get caught up in just having transactional conversations, which tend to focus on just getting something from someone else — more work, more sales, more initiative — and lose sight of the person who’s standing right there in front of us. How many misunderstandings could be avoided if we slowed down our busy lives and truly listened to what our spouses, friends, and employees were trying to tell us?

Author Susan Scott, in “Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time,” states that “the conversation is the relationship,” and I would add that the depth of our conversations represent the depth of our relationship with that person. Proverbs 20:5 offers that “the purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” Consider what changes would come from actually diving below the surface of our conversations and seeking to draw out and understand what the other person is really trying to tell us. What if we treated every encounter as if the future of our relationship with that person depended on it?  

If we want to get the best from our relationships, both in and outside of work, we’ve got to make the choice to really listen with the intent to understand and not just to simply acknowledge or reply. This means paying attention to more than what’s just being said, and taking the time to explore the feelings and beliefs behind the words. Once done, we’ll find that our conversations become more than a transaction and become transformational encounters that uncover the root of issues and gain commitment on solutions. But where can we start? 

Here are three simple things to consider the next time someone in your life asks to speak with you:

• Your eyes. What we physically focus on with our eyes strongly influences where our attention is focused. Good eye contact shows the person speaking that you are interested in what they are saying and are really listening. If you are looking around at every noise in the shop, you will surely miss some of the other person’s gestures and facial expressions, nuances that help us to understand what’s being said and what’s not being said. Keep your eyes on the person, and even lean in. You want them to know they have your undivided attention.

• Silence. If you’re going to be an effective listener, you’re going to have to get comfortable with the silence. If you find yourself interrupting, thinking of responses while the other person is talking, or jumping in with advice too early, you’re probably missing part of the message. Silence allows us time to reflect on what the other person has said and can often draw out further words from the other person.

• Using questions. This is a proven way to draw another person out. A dear mentor once told me, “Never tell what you can ask.” Questions are great tools for helping you to get the full picture of what’s being communicated and for helping the other person discover their own solutions.  Become a master of great questions, and you’re well on your way to being an effective listener.