Marriage guidance counsellors never stop hearing it. 'He (or she) never listens', warring couples grumble, again and again, as if they were chanting a mantra. And it is the same at work. Bosses say it of executives they are displeased with, and the executives return the compliment with interest when bellyaching about their bosses. Customers say it about suppliers who have cocked up, and suppliers - having patiently explained why on this occasion they cannot provide exactly what is wanted - say the same about their customers. Like married couples, we all hurl the accusation at others, pretending that we ourselves are faultless.
Yet in our hearts we know many of the mistakes we make come about because we haven't listened sufficiently carefully. We get things wrong because we haven't quite understood what was wanted, or haven't sussed out the implications of what we were told. Anyone who has ever written the minutes of a long meeting will know how hard it is to remember - even with the benefit of notes - exactly what everyone said and, more importantly, exactly what everyone meant. But success depends on getting things right - and that means listening: listening, listening, listening.
Hearing is not listening. Listening is not a passive activity. It is hard work. It demands attention and concentration. It may mean probing the speaker for additional information. If you allow your mind to wander, even for a few minutes, you'll naturally miss what the speaker is saying - probably at the very moment when the speaker is saying something crucial.
But not having heard, you won't know you've missed. Until too late.
The most common bad habit we all have is to start thinking of what we are going to say long before the other speaker has finished. Then we stop listening.
Worse still, this often adds rudeness to inattentiveness, as once you have determined what you intend to say there is a fair chance you will brusquely butt in on the other person to say it. The American wit Letitia Baldridge quipped: 'Good listeners don't interrupt - ever - unless the building's on fire.' It's a good rule of thumb.
One of the key ways to improve your listening ability is by learning to keep a wary eye on the speaker's body language. The ways people move and position themselves while they are speaking can reveal a great deal about what they are saying. (People's subconscious behaviour is often much more honest than they are themselves.) Being a good listener involves being a good watcher: eyes and ears must go hand in hand.
For example, people who cover up their mouths with their hands while they are speaking are usually betraying insecurity, and may well be lying.
When people rub their noses, it generally indicates they are puzzled; when they shrug their shoulders they are indifferent; when they hug themselves they are feeling threatened. If they are smiling as they speak they want you to feel the message is friendly, even if its content sounds hostile.
(They may, for example, be criticising you but want you to understand they are doing so to help you.) On the other hand, if they are clenching their fists and drumming their fingers they may be restraining their anger, and may be much more furious than their words suggest.
The American psychologist Robert C Beck, who has specialised in research into how people can teach themselves to be better listeners, offers the following half-dozen rules for self-improvement.
Be patient - accept that many people are not very good communicators, encourage them to make things crystal clear, and don't interrupt impatiently or jump to conclusions.
Be empathetic - put yourself in the other person's shoes, both intellectually and emotionally; it will help you understand what they are getting at.
Don't be too clever - faced with a know-all, many people clam up, either because they don't want to look foolish or because they see no point in bothering to continue.
Use self-disclosure - admitting to your own problems and difficulties, and to your own mistakes, will encourage people to speak openly and honestly about theirs.
Ask for explanations - get people to explain points or words you have not fully understood; it is always better to ask than to press on regardless - and then get things wrong.
Ask 'opening up' questions - these are gentle, unthreatening and open-ended (like 'would you like to tell me a bit more about that?'); they cannot be answered with a mere 'yes' or 'no' and should provide no clues as to the answer the questioner might want to hear.
Finally, it is almost always worth summing up the gist of what you have just been told, as quickly and pithily as your can, before the discussion ends. Nobody is ever offended by having what they have just said repeated to them. It ensures you have listened accurately and grasped the correct messages. If things go pear-shaped thereafter, at least the pears can't be dumped on your doorstep.
Winston Fletcher is a lecturer, businessman and author.