Stop multi-tasking. Effective listening requires absolute focus. Ignore your computer, switch off your BlackBerry, and push other concerns to the back of your mind. They can wait.
Choose your hat. Does the speaker want a devil's advocate, a solution, or just a sympathetic ear? Identify their need, then tailor your responses to suit. Not sure what they want? Ask.
Suspend judgment. Former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner saved the floundering company after he joined in 1993. How? 'For the first month, I listened,' he recalls, 'and I tried hard not to draw conclusions.' Avoid reckless decisions and conflict by focusing solely on what you hear (we lost the account) rather than your analysis of it (I need to overhaul my team). Get the facts.
Stop the drift. If your attention wanders, regain focus by studying the speaker: their voice, the way they stand, the colour of their eyes. Remember the sensation of drifting and use the technique in future conversations as a trigger to re-focus.
Get physical. Use body language to reinforce the fact that you are listening. Keep eye contact, nod in recognition, don't fidget.
Talk less, sell more. Sales coach Neil Rackham told Kodak's sales team to stop pushing products and start asking questions. Soon, they'd secured $1m of new business. Discover untapped needs by replacing closed questions ('which package do you prefer?') with open ones ('what is your biggest challenge?').
Watch and learn. Notice more than their words. They recite a well-practised 'the restructure hasn't affected my workload', but their stance, speech tempo and tone may tell a different story. Ask about emotions as well as facts.
Show and tell. At the end of a conversation, demonstrate how actively you've been listening by summarising the main message or building on a key point. Show them you've heard, understood and are ready to add value.
The Mind Gym: Relationships is published by Little, Brown at £12.99 - www.themindgym.com/books