This timeless communication skill may just be your secret weapon to better relationships.

Billionaire entrepreneurs Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Richard Branson have gone on record to say that communication is the most essential skill you need. Yet most people think of communication in the speaking sense of the word.

On his own Virgin Blog, Richard Branson expands further on:

“Communication makes the world go round. It facilitates human connections, and allows us to learn, grow, and progress. It’s not just about speaking or reading but understanding what is being said — and in some cases what is not being said.Communication is the most important skill any leader can possess.”

Did you catch it? “Understanding what is being said” is the essence of powerful listening – the other side of the communication equation. And without it, you cannot succeed.

Listen Before Speaking

You must actively listen to the people you lead – with your whole head and heart – to gain influence and build trust with others.

And I do mean listen with your ears. Tragically, the digital era is causing a slow degeneration in our ability to communicate verbally. Specifically, the part of verbal communication that doesn’t require words.

Being connected 24/7 to mobile apps, texting, email, and communicating in 140 characters or less is undoubtedly convenient. However, we need to guard against diminishing our own ability to verbally engage and listen to colleagues, clients, family & friends when necessary.

The majority of people listen selectively. We’re hearing someone’s words come out, but in our heads, we’re thinking, “When is Joe going to stop talking so I can tell him that I have another point of view and I’m right?”

Listening Before Speaking

As an individual, regardless of who you are or what you do, building up your active listening skills is crucial for solving problems, building trust, and winning the hearts and minds of people. Here are four difference-makers for the way you listen.

1. Listen to understand first

Peter Drucker once said, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” It’s important to be able to know what’s going on with the other person by reflecting back what you heard to clarify (“What I hear you saying is …”) and ask questions to probe the other person’s feelings or opinions on the topic of conversation. Probing can be as simple as “Tell me how you feel about this.”

2. Listen by putting people at ease

Emotionally intelligent people are great listeners, especially with those they have just met.

That’s because they know human nature – most people love to talk about themselves, and people with high emotional intelligence will let them. They’ll make new acquaintances feel welcome and appreciated with their listening presence, rather than impatiently jumping in with a sales pitch or elevator speech.

Most of us can’t wait to assert ourselves with potential clients or a new connection. But in our hastiness, we miss the more significant opportunity to listen and take in more information that will make us look good later. And sometimes, it gets worse when we’re nervous. That’s when we look unprofessional and lose out.

3. Listen with the other person’s interest in mind

Had a recent conflict? Is the team not on the same page? If you really want to reconnect with those who have distanced themselves from you, listen for meaning and understanding with the other person’s needs in mind.

The listening has one modus operandi: How can I help this other person? In his classic essay, The Servant as Leader, Robert Greenleaf, said that “only a true natural servant automatically responds to any problem by listening first.”

This will give you the edge to build trust. In the work setting, you benefit from this style of listening because the more receptive you are to helping others, the safer you make it for them to be open enough to give you great input, great ideas, significant contributions.

4. Listen with empathy

Empathic listening is the skill of extending yourself for others by really seeing things as they see it, and feeling things as they feel them.

This means parking your thoughts and emptying yourself out entirely from the noise and chatter in your own head. It means becoming fully present and mindful to the other person.

It means refraining from making or preparing to make a response.

When you park your thoughts and are present to the other person, you’re not distracted by the need to explain, defend, or fix.

You’re probably thinking that it all feels like a lot of work. And yeah, it’s hard work. But I know this to be one of the best ways to build trust with another person no matter the situation.