Ask people if they are good listeners. It's a good bet nearly everyone will answer yes. Not only that, they'll say that it's easy to be a good listener. Business publications are full of articles about the sorry state of communication in today's workplace. The chief culprit is always "poor listening skills."

If being a good listener is so easy, what's the problem?

To answer that, we have to identify the essentials that make up good listening skills.

Many people think that communication means getting others to do what you want them to do. For them, good listening means, "I talk, YOU listen." Sometimes that approach might actually work. In fact, many people see it as a sign that the speaker is confident and knowledgeable. Usually, however, the speaker is neither. They get their point across by shouting, "Didn't you hear me?" Or by moralizing, "This is the only fair decision we can make." Or by pulling rank, "It's my way or the highway."

Managers who use these tactics might be successful in getting their staffers to follow their instructions, but these are the same managers who complain about how their best staffers always seem to leave.

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"I had no idea there was a problem until I got the resignation letter," they whine. "After all, we communicated so well."

These people have forgotten the basic truth about being a good listener: Listening is a two-way process.

Yes, you need to be heard. You also need to hear the other person's ideas, questions and objections. If you talk at people instead of with them, they're not buying in -- they're caving in.

Some people think good communication simply means saying things that are worth listening to. It's not a bad approach, except that it focuses all the attention on one person. They will tell you that they do see listening as a two-way process. Unfortunately, what two-way translates into is, "I'll talk about me, and I'll listen to your questions about me." These people listen not to learn about others, but to formulate their own comments. It's like the economics student whose brilliant business model is dismissed by a professor who says, "Your idea works in practice, but not in theory."

Believe it or not, being a good listener is more important in sales then being a good talker. Ben Feldman, the first insurance salesman to pass the sales goal of $25 million in one year, and then double that figure, had a simple formula for his success. He was New York Life's leading salesman for more than 20 years, operating out of East Liverpool, Ohio, a city of 20,000. His secret? (1) Work hard. (2) Think big. (3) Listen very well.

Good listeners steer conversations toward other people's interests. This is what separates a good talker from a good conversationalist. And remember, you can't learn anything when you are doing the talking.

More than a century ago, a young woman who had dined with both William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli explained why she preferred Disraeli: "When I dined with Mr. Gladstone, I felt as though he was the smartest man in England. But when I dined with Mr. Disraeli, I felt as though I was the smartest woman in England."

Being a good listener also means paying attention to context as well as content. If you've ever studied a foreign language, you know that literal translations are impossible, especially with colloquial phrases. An interpreter will translate "I am not feeling well" from the colloquial French "I'm not in my dish" to the colloquial English "I'm under the weather."

A listener who can paraphrase what you've said without changing your meaning is a great listener. A listener who can merely repeat your words back to you is a parrot.

It takes skill and determination to be a good listener, but the effort yields terrific results. Perhaps the biggest reward of being a good listener is that you also become a better talker. You learn the best way to get people to hear what you're saying, and you find that you don't need to force-feed your ideas and opinions to others. You'll know you've attained your goal when you can utter two sentences in an hourlong conversation, and the other speaker thanks you for your input and adds, quite earnestly, "You always have so much to say!"

Mackay's Moral: Easy listening is a style of music, not communication

Harvey Mackay is author of the New York Times best-seller "Pushing the Envelope" (Ballantine Books). He can be reached at: e-mail:Harvey@Mackay.com; Web site:http://www.mackay.com; or Mackay Envelope Corporation, 2100 Elm St., Minneapolis, MN 55414.