When people in your organization come to you to discuss a problem, you give them your best answer and probably assume you’ve helped them.

Well, it may not be that simple. You’re not being much help if you’re not really listening to them. We're not talking about the mere act of listening, but the art of listening, known as "active listening." Knowing the difference can have a significant impact on whether you get ahead in your career.

This is especially true if your goal is a leadership position. Just read through job descriptions, and you'll find that most positions, even many lower-level ones, state the need for outstanding communication skills. This is largely because today's professionals are often required to interact directly with many different people, both inside and outside the organization.

But the intensifying spotlight on communication skills has many professionals feeling a bit exposed. They've spent years refining their technical expertise because that's what the business demanded — and have thus given little time or effort to cultivating superior soft skills, especially active listening.

Ways to sharpen your active listening skills

If this describes you, how can you become a more effective listener? Here are some tips:

Be present. Truly hearing what the speaker has to say requires your full attention. There are so many distractions in the office — many of them tech-related, like instant messaging and email — that you almost can't help but half listen to anyone who speaks to you, whether it's in person or by phone. What you need to do is purposefully practice active listening by bringing yourself fully into the conversation. Be mindful and concentrate on the message, word for word, and make sure you understand the other person. This includes meetings, too, when you may lose focus and feel tempted to glance at your smartphone.

Notice the nuances. Understanding nonverbal cues is another active listening technique: Even though listening naturally involves hearing, good listeners will also sense what is not being said, as well as what is verbalized. Learning how to read physical cues, such as facial expressions, or how to catch subtle changes in a person's speaking tone, takes practice. Improving these active listening skills will not only help you get the message and resolve problems faster, but also diffuse situations before they take an unpleasant turn.

Don't interrupt. Giving the other person your undivided attention shows respect and can have a positive impact on your entire exchange. It also means you're less likely to misunderstand, or simply miss, what the person is saying to you. Of course, it's easy to become impatient when a client, customer or coworker is telling you about a problem you already know how to solve before they've finished speaking. But part of active listening means you need to let them complete their full "download" to you before you respond. If the person does get a little long-winded, wait for an appropriate moment to interject or politely ask a question.

Empathize. Someone contacting you for assistance who doesn’t have a similar amount of expertise in your area may require even more active listening. Be patient with them.

Seek clarification. If the problem requires further action on your part, make sure to repeat back what the speaker said to confirm you understand the issue and what you must do.


Tune in to your teammates

Today's office environments are often fast-paced with intense workloads and little time to spend listening thoroughly. However, make a point not to become so absorbed in your work that you frequently miss, or only half absorb, what others on your immediate team are saying.

Also, remember that good active listening skills apply when communicating with others beyond in-person or phone conversations. In fact, active listening is an effective technique used widely in psychology, training and conflict resolution. Put simply, don't underestimate how important it is.

Check out these insightful quotes about the importance of improving your active listening skills at work!