Listening, not imitation, may be the sincerest form of flattery.
It sounds pretty basic but let's give this some thought. How many conversations are you in these days when you get someone's full attention? Between cell phones, the Internet, people walking by and everything else vying for your attention, it really is an effort to give someone your full and undivided attention.
To listen well, you must be able to filter out all these distractions. Nothing says "I don't care about what you are saying" like sneaking a peak at your cell phone under the table to check your incoming text message as someone is pouring out their heart to you.
Look directly at the person. If you are in a public place and you have a strong inclination to people watch, try sitting in a location where you won't be constantly distracted by people walking by you. By focusing on the person's face as they talk, you will be able to pick up on their body language which helps you read more than just their words.
You show how much you value the relationship by the amount of attention you give to your conversations. Tune out the distractions (ahem, put your cell phone on vibrate), focus on the person by looking them in the face and honor what they have to say.
Let Them Speak!
Are you really listening... or are you just waiting for your turn to talk?
Is there anything more frustrating than someone who loves to hear themselves talk? One thing that will shut me down in a conversation is a person that talks over me. You know that person, the one who stops you mid-sentence and adds their two cents to everything you say. You can't be listening when you are thinking about the next thing you are going to say.
Listening well involves allowing the other person to fully express themselves. Not everyone is an exceptional conversationalist. When you are conversing with someone who has a hard time expressing themselves, avoid finishing sentences for them. Give them room to get it out. If you constantly finish a thought for someone, it will possibly discourage them from growing in that area.
Another key factor in listening well is waiting for the opportune time to reply. Just because a person pauses in the conversation, it doesn't mean that they have finished their thought. Give them an opportunity to finish a thought completely. I like to wait a few beats after a short silence and evaluate if they have completely finished their thought. Most people will give you some indication that they are ready for your response.
Listening well and answering well is one of the greatest perfections that can be obtained in conversation.
There are two ways you can give feedback. One is with words and one is with actions.
You can listen actively without saying anything. Use your body language as part of the conversation. Empathize with your facial expressions. Raise your eyebrows when someone tells you something surprising or intense. Nod in response to rhetorical questions to show that you are engaged. Make sure that your posture is open and inviting. Wandering eyes and folded arms doesn't exactly say, "Tell me what's on your mind". You would be surprised to see how much a posture that demonstrates interest helps people open up.
Remember that your personal experiences determine your assumptions and judgements. Make sure that you completely understand the person's perspective and position by clarifying what they say and asking reflective questions. Repeat back to them what they said to be sure you understand and that they understand what they are saying themselves. For example you might say something like, "Okay, so it sounds like you are saying..." or "What I'm hearing is..."
Ask questions to clarify things that are unclear. "What do you mean when you say...?" "Is this what you mean?"
Your verbal and non-verbal queues demonstrate your investment in the conversation and will help you to give the most effective feedback. Which leads us to the next point...
Don't Jump To Conclusions
From listening comes wisdom and from speaking, repentance
Reserve your judgement until you fully understand the situation and have all the facts. Understand that many times people are not expecting an answer, they just want someone to listen. Don't feel pressured to provide a solution to solve a problem. When you listen effectively, you'll be surprised how many responses of "Wow, I feel better now!" you will get without ever providing any answers.
Also, be careful not to just tell the person what they want to hear. When speaking to someone in an emotional state, they may seek out someone to confirm to them that they are doing the right thing and that their (sometimes wrong) actions are justified. You can empathize with someone and validate what they feel without condoning their actions.
Give A Measured Response
When you are ready to provide your feedback on the specifics of the situation, be candid, open, and honest in your response. As you assert your opinions, do so respectfully. As much as possible try to maintain an objective position. Where possible, play devil's advocate to help a person understand the other side of a situation.
Avoid giving your opinions when you are in an emotional state. The best thing you can do when you are emotional is to listen and keep your opinions to yourself. When there are two emotional people having a discussion, the likelihood that there is any effective listening going on drops pretty dramatically.
These are just a few things I've learned and use in my own relationships. Try using these tips to hone your listening skills and see how it improves the quality of your conversations. Remember, we were created with two ears and only one mouth.