The holidays provide a good opportunity to spend quality time (even remotely) with family, friends and coworkers. Rather than getting stressed about holiday obligations, think about these opportunities as making “deposits” in your relationship banks. The time you spend is an investment into the relationship’s long-term success.

Spending time with people means talking with them. Whether personal or professional, conversation is a big part of this season. Most people are very good at talking about themselves. Why is that? Insecurity, self-importance, passion? Whatever the underlying cause, when we’re talking about ourselves, we’re not learning much about anyone else.

Listening is more than hearing. Too often, we participate in conversations by focusing less on what the other person is saying and more on what we’re going to say next. When you show that you are truly comprehending what another person is saying, rather than just waiting your turn to reply, you add to their self-worth and you validate them. Who wouldn’t want that for a gift?

What’s the secret to great listening? There’s a lot that goes into it, and it’s not something you’ll master overnight. But remembering a few key points can help:

* Speak less. Don’t try to “one-up” the other person, dominate the conversation or prove a point. Know you’re OK being just who you are. Even a well-meaning attempt to relate with someone by sharing a similar experience draws the focus away from them and onto you, so speak less!

* Demonstrate you’re paying attention. Greet the other person with a smile. Look them in the eyes and honor their thoughts. Taking these actions will help you focus and drown out distractions.

* Ask open-ended questions and actively listen to their responses. Try to listen without the intent to reply. Practice patience and listen completely until the person finishes his or her point. Let the conversation go where it needs to naturally--resist the temptation to bring it back around to what you want to say.

* Imagine you’ll be describing the conversation to someone else later. Just like having to teach something is the best way to learn it, knowing you’ll have to relay a conversation to someone later can help you focus and retain the important information. To test yourself, try to summarize the conversation several hours or days later, even if you’re just talking to yourself. This process can show you how much information you’re retaining and whether you need to improve. It can also make a big difference in your next conversation with that person.

We live in an increasingly busy and chaotic world. No matter how busy you are--or who you are--use this holiday season to try to improve your listening skills. Break out of the old habits of needing to be the center of attention or always having a witty reply. Remember, you’re great just the way you are--it’s OK to let someone else have the spotlight!

Not only will better listening make the holidays more enjoyable, it will help you in your professional and personal life. And it doesn’t cost a dime!

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