In my workshops, I talk about an individual who has an uncanny ability to build relationships. He rose from an hourly paid employee to become the director of safety worldwide for a Fortune 100 company. How did he do it? He took the time to listen and understand his people and his “customers” — their needs, wants and desires. He applied this skill in all of his interactions.

We all want to be better at influencing change, building relationships, and resolving conflicts. Behind these skills in most cases is the ability to listen. Listening is one of the most — possibly the single-most — critical communications skill. Here are five keys to better listening:

Seek to understand

Start with the fifth habit in Stephen Covey’s, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. I first came across this concept in “The Prayer of St. Francis,” a wonderful hymn which states in the third verse, “Oh Master, grant that I may never seek, to be understood as to understand.” As we develop the key points of effective listening, note how many times “seek first to understand” comes into play.

Listen for feelings

Empathy, the ability to capture and reflect meanings and feelings, is critical to the process of understanding. It is an act of demonstrating your understanding of another person’s message and feelings. But be careful, empathic listening is not an act of agreement or sympathy.

Get focused

An effective listener uses not only their ears, but also applies their eyes, brain, heart and body. We need to engage with our eyes, assimilate the message with our brain, develop empathy or feeling with our heart, and demonstrate a willingness or openness with our body. We need to focus.

Watch your tone

Body language, tone, mood, and words are integrated into our communications similar to how words, dance and music can be woven together. During a recent seminar on listening, the point was made that our words account for seven percent of our ability to listen and communicate effectively, our dance (body language) accounts for 38 percent, and our music (tone/mood of the spoken word) accounts for 55 percent. Many times I’ve sent the wrong message to someone by using words, dance and music that signal all I want is the bottom line and none of that empathy stuff.

This is not the best way to sell, negotiate or resolve conflicts, of course. The single-best method is to “seek first to understand.” Articulate with “words, dance and music” your understanding of the other person’s point of view. This provides the “space” in which the conflict can be resolved.

Don't get personal

Another method is reflected in the title of Fisher and Ury’s book on negotiations, “Getting to Yes.” The authors don’t talk about “you-lose-and-I-win” but rather “you-win-and-I-win” negotiations. This can only happen if at least one of the parties demonstrates they sincerely want to understand the other’s position and then commits to principle-based, not personal-based, outcome.

Remember the old Fram oil filter commercial — “Pay me now or pay me later”? It’s apropos to listening. Many of you are probably saying that this active listening and empathy stuff takes too much time. But just as changing the oil can pay big dividends in automobile maintenance, listening for understanding and feelings can pay huge dividends in our personal and professional lives.

Sidebar: Barriers to good listening

To this day I still have the yellowed piece of paper from more than 30 years ago with the notes I transcribed on a University of Minnesota professor’s “Ten Barriers to Good Listening”:

1 Pre-judging the subject matter to be poor.

2 Being critical of the presenter’s appearance or delivery.

3 Formulating responses, questions, or rebuttals while “listening.”

4 Listening only for facts.

5 Faking attentive listening.

6 Tolerating or creating distractions.

7 Avoiding difficult or highly technical material.

8 Allowing emotional buttons to be pushed.

9 Wasting the deferential between speaking and listening/thinking speed.

10 Making assumptions.