Some of the most successful entrepreneurs have yet to hone their listening skills--and it could be working against them.
If you take the time to hear what others have to say--particularly your employees and customers, whose feedback is invaluable--you will build a loyal following for your brand. But be careful not to judge or criticize; just simply listen.
Here are five techniques to do so more effectively:
1. Open up your body language. Your body language reveals your interest or disinterest in a story. When actively listening to someone, lean slightly forward and make eye contact. A simple smile and the occasional nod will show that you're interested and engaged.
In situations where you feel slightly uncomfortable--such as a networking event--you may have a tendency to cross your arms, put your hands in your pockets or exhibit other forms of nervous behavior. These small physical barriers can discourage others from approaching you.
2. Stay engaged. If you're in a busy area, focus more on the person you're with and less on what's going on around you. Similarly, while on the phone, turn your back to your computer and give the person you're talking to your full attention. When you're distracted by technology, it makes others feel unimportant.
3. Resist the urge to interrupt. It can be tempting to finish someone's sentence to show you comprehend their message, but it can come off as rude. Listening builds trust. If you interrupt someone--even with good intentions--it denies the speaker the opportunity to fully express her feelings or opinions. To ensure that you won't interrupt, always pause for a few seconds before responding.
4. Ask questions. The two most powerful words in a conversation are, "Tell me." People will perk up when you ask them pertinent questions and listen attentively to their responses. If you take an active interest in the lives of others, they will return the favor.
Open-ended questions provide the best opportunity for people to elaborate on a given topic and will keep the conversation flowing smoothly. If you don't understand the point someone is trying to make, ask for clarification or specific examples.
5. Practice empathetic listening. Listen not only with your ears, but with your eyes and your heart. You don't have to necessarily agree with the speaker, but imagine how he or she feels. Put yourself in another person's shoes to fully understand their point of view.
Unfortunately, most people don't listen to comprehend; they listen to reply. Don't focus on what you're going to say next. It's distracting and hinders the conversation. Focus on the speaker's story. Ask yourself, "How would I feel if this happened to me?" And once you've fully absorbed what the person has said, respond thoughtfully.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.
Jacqueline Whitmore is an etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach. She is also the author of Poised for Success: Mastering the Four Qualities That Distinguish Outstanding Professionals (St. Martin's Press, 2011) and Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work (St. Martin's Press, 2005).