Listening is a crucial skill. You've heard that so often that it has become a platitude. I'm sad about that because... well... because listening is a crucial skill.

Crucial for what? If you want to unstick a stuck conversation, you will need to listen well enough to understand what the other person is saying. If you want to respond to resistance, or to resolve a conflict that involves a significant emotional component — and nearly all conflicts do — you will need to listen for the other person's motivations. If you want to maintain or strengthen or repair a relationship, you will need to listen for the other person's feelings and needs.

Okay, listening is crucial. That's still a platitude unless we put some details behind it. If listening is so important, what are some practical steps we can take to improve? I've found a number of tests that help me sharpen my listening.

In any situation in which listening is especially important, my first goal is to make sure I am prepared to listen. To test how well I am prepared to listen, I ask myself, "To what extent am I willing to be changed?" If I enter a conversation intent on persuading the other person to my point of view, unwilling to change my own point of view, I limit my ability to listen.

This is just a test, not an admonition. I'm not recommending that you go into each conversation prepared to abandon your most cherished beliefs and values. Into each conversation you bring a suite of plans, intentions, conclusions, interpretations, judgments, beliefs, and values. You may be willing to change some of these things, and inflexible about others. The key is not to put all of these up for negotiation, but to be mindful of what you're holding onto, and mindful that inflexibility may limit your ability to hear what other people are saying. Are the things you're holding onto more important than listening fully? That depends on the specifics of the situation. My way of sorting out the specifics is to notice what I'm holding onto and to remind myself of my choices. I ask myself, "What am I holding tightly to in this conversation? Is this more important to me than listening with empathy to what others are saying?" If so, fine. If not, I'll want to relax my grip so that I can listen.

The first test is about being prepared to listen. The next test tells me whether I am understanding what another person is saying. To test for understanding, I say what meaning I'm making of the other person's words, then ask "Is that what you mean?" If the person replies, "Yes, that's what I mean," I've understood. If not, I haven't.

In most cases, if I didn't understand well the other person will point out the parts I misunderstood or rephrase them in some way. Every now and again I have to prompt for clarification by asking, "What parts did I misunderstand?" After the person clarifies, I can test again for whether I understand.

This is a test of understanding, not of agreement. I may understand perfectly well, to the other person's satisfaction, and still disagree.

The second test tells me whether I have heard a piece of what another person is saying. Now I want to know whether I've understood all of what the person wants to say. To test whether I have listened fully, I ask, "Is there more that you want to say?"

Sometimes the person has more to say, and says it. I use the "test for understanding" to make sure I've understood the new information and how it fits with what the person said earlier. Then I ask again, "Is there more?" When the person says, "No, there's no more I want to say," I've listened fully.

The second and third tests tell me whether I've fully understood the person's meaning. Sometimes I want to go further, to empathize to make sure I've understood the feelings and needs behind what the person is saying. To test my empathy, I ask, "Are you feeling ________ because you are needing ________?" And I fill in the blanks with whatever feelings and needs I think the person is experiencing.

How do I know what the other person is feeling and needing? Sometimes the person expresses feelings directly: "I'm angry" or "I'm disappointed" or "I'm really looking forward to this." Sometimes the need is clearly expressed: "I'm worried about losing my job."

Sometimes the signs are less direct — shouting, a crack in the voice, changes in gestures, body position, facial expressions, or skin tone. I never know for sure what these mean. Sometimes, especially when I notice a sudden change in one of these signals, I ask, "What's going on for you? What just happened?" Other times, I take the advice that Kelly Bryson offers in his book Don't Be Nice, Be Real: guess! As Bryson says:

You do not have to guess right. Just guess human. Just imagine a human feeling and need that might be behind their words. Guessing feelings and needs at least puts us in the camp of humanness, instead of judgment.

The best way I know to build skill in understanding other people's feelings and needs is to learn more about my own. As I learn to distinguish my feelings and needs more accurately, and to empathize with them, I am better able to imagine what others may be feeling and needing. The Center for Nonviolent Communication web site includes helpful lists of human feelings and needs.

Whew! That's a lot of work! Is all of this squishy, touchy-feelie stuff necessary? Sometimes no. Sometimes yes. Empathy is important whenever the conversation involves strong feelings that may interfere with communication. And empathy is important whenever I want to maintain, strengthen, or repair a relationship. That is, whenever I care about the person and our relationship, and I want to show that I care.

References: I learned the "willing to be changed" test from Amy Schwab, who learned it from David Schmaltz, who learned it from Sharon Bennett. The "test for understanding" and "test for listening fully" come from Harville Hendrix's audio book Keeping the Love You Find. Though much of this book is specific to love relationships, Hendrix's techniques and exercises about listening apply equally well to other kinds of relationships. The "test for empathy" comes from Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication and Kelly Bryson's Don't Be Nice, Be Real .