In the modern era, conversations have to compete with smartphones, the near-ubiquity of the Internet, cable television, Facebook, Twitter, and various other social media. With a limitless supply of information and entertainment at our fingertips, it's easy for the quality of human interaction to decline. Yet the ways we engage with others--particularly our listening skills--often determine the course of our relationships. Though our conversations with others can be compromised by bad listening habits, there are several simple strategies that will improve listening skills in both personal and professional relationships.
First, regardless of whether the conversation is personal or professional, it is essential to practice empathy. Empathy is the ability to consider another person's state of existence--more colloquially stated as the ability put oneself in another person's shoes. Attempt to understand where the other person is coming from and why he or she might be talking to you about this particular issue. When you are engaging with others, ask yourself: what kind of information can I draw from their facial expressions, tone of voice, and hand gestures, as well as the actual informative content of their words. Too often, our conversations with others consist of merely waiting to speak so that we can direct the conversation toward ourselves. Neither party wishes to truly listen to the other. Rather than engage others this way, focus on what they are actually saying. Where can you take the conversation from here? Can you contribute by offering advice or nudging the conversation along toward a similar topic?
Resisting the urge to talk about ourselves is closely related to another essential aspect of healthy communication: interruptions. We are self-centered beings by nature--that is to say, our own brains are the seats of our consciousness and the way in which we interact with everything around us. It's easy to forget that everyone does not see the world as we do. In order to truly improve listening skills, suppress the desire to interrupt your conversation partner and first focus on why you are interrupting. Improve listening skills by looking at your engagements with others as an opportunity to learn, as opposed to a series of chances to talk about yourself.
You can also take steps to improve listening skills by attempting to craft a list of mental questions as your partner is speaking. Do not let this interfere with your focus on his or her content, however. Questions will help you remain engaged with what the speaker is saying while simultaneously prompting your brain to work harder by splitting the conversation into complex tasks (generating questions, listening and responding to the speaker, comprehending the speaker's content, etc.). Be patient, listen unselfishly, and the quality of your conversations with others will improve significantly.