EFFECTIVE listening is perhaps the most overlooked area of communication.

Most people have the misconception that they are good listeners just because they have a fair degree of auditory acuity.

The Chinese word for "listen", ting, as written in the classical style (below), comprises six separate ideographs representing ear, king, 10 eyes and one heart.

This suggests the emphasis that you should place on listening. Besides using your ears, you should listen with your heart, watch very carefully for non-verbal signals and treat the speaker like a king.

How do you listen?

People listen at different levels of involvement depending on their skills, abilities and even moods.

Here are some types of listening:

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In-and-out listening:

The in-and-out listener is preoccupied with his own thoughts, problems and daydreams.

He may be idly waiting for his chance to respond. His attention phases in and out.

Unfortunately, this is the most common type of listening - most people listen at this level most of the time.

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Literal listening:

The literal listener pays careful attention to the words being spoken and thus truly believes he is getting the full meaning of the message.

At first glance, literal listening appears to be good listening. The literal listener's emotional detachment seems to indicate objectivity.

But the literal listener overlooks the fact that the meaning of the message is in the person rather than the words.

By focusing on the words, the literal listener often misses the feeling behind the words.

While literal listening is preferable to in-and-out listening, it is still well below where you want to be.

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Empathetic listening:

This is the highest form of listening. The empathetic listener focuses on the complete message - the content as well as the underlying emotions, non-verbal signals and hidden meanings.

The empathetic listener is neutral and does not judge or criticise.

He is fully engaged and truly seeks to understand the speaker's point of view. He is responsive and provides feedback and encouragement to the speaker.

Empathetic listening requires patience, genuine concern for the other person and energy.

Lend an ear

Here is how you can develop the skills to become an empathetic listener:

1. Make eye contact.

This lets the speaker know you are paying attention. Bear in mind that a piercing stare will make most speakers uncomfortable, so glance away briefly now and then.

2. Resist distractions.

Focus exclusively on the speaker.

3. Display appropriate facial expressions.

Usually, this means a smile, but not always. Let the tone of the conversation guide you. People respond more favourably when your face registers the correct emotion.

4. Be interested in the other party and his needs.

People love attention and recognition. Give it to them, and they will rate you highly as a listener as well as a friend, colleague and human being.

Use appropriate body language and gestures to show attentiveness and empathy.

5. Do not change the subject prematurely.

Changing the subject suggests a lack of interest on your part.

6. Do not interrupt.

Let the speaker complete his sentences and have his say.

7. Ask questions.

Asking questions is an excellent way to elicit information, confirm understanding and sustain and guide the discussion.

8. Limit questions.

Asking too many questions disrupts the speaker's train of thought and puts him on the defensive.

9. Acknowledge and encourage.

Use words and sounds of encouragement such as the occasional "I see", "uh-huh", "right", "okay" and "hmmm" to show you are attending to the speaker.

You can also prompt the speaker non-verbally by nodding from time to time, leaning forward, raising your eyebrows and so on.

10. Paraphrase and summarise.

Repeat the speaker's message in your own words to show that you understand his intention, and allow him the opportunity to clarify his message if you do not fully understand it.

11. Keep an open mind.

Try to see the speaker's point of view, even if you do not agree with it.

12. Be objective.

Do not judge or criticise the speaker. Do not jump to conclusions or offer unwanted advice.

13. Read body language.

Look for the meaning behind the words, gestures and facial expressions.

14. Empathise.

Reflect the speaker's feelings, even if you do not agree with what he is saying. You task is to listen and understand, not form opinions.

By implementing these techniques, your skill as a listener - and a communicator - will improve dramatically.