Use Waiting Time for Your Writing Practice

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At my part-time job recently, I found myself sitting around for extended periods of time waiting for batches of orders to come in before I had to put them together for the customer. I hated those slow times. Even though I had my smart phone with me, I didn’t want to waste valuable battery life on reading online articles. So I did the next best thing to make the time pass. I grabbed a pen and began jotting down notes on a spare paper bag about my waiting experience, notes that I am now converting into this blog post.

Inspiration can hit you at any time so you have to be prepared. One of the best opportunities for finding that creative inspiration is while you’re waiting — whether you’re at the doctor’s office, at the airport, or  in the grocery checkout line. Taking advantage of that uninterrupted time for writing, research or revising stories is better than worrying about that job interview or your upcoming blind date.

Worrying is fruitless when you have to wait, say psychology experts. Worrying doesn’t accomplish anything except make you feel worse than you already do. And worrying can be harmful to your health in the long run.

Waiting is commonplace in our society. So why do we hate it so much? Because we’re used to being on the go. We don’t want to slow down for anything. Social media and technology have made the situation worse by creating an immediacy to information and faster response times. Life got busier and faster as a result. We’re used to being on this treadmill called life, and we don’t want to get off.

We also dislike waiting because we can’t control our time. The control of our time is in the hands of someone else, like the doctor or the pilot. We worry because we aren’t in control.

Sometimes we simply have no choice but to wait. According to the Washington Post, research has found that it isn’t the wait that annoys people; it’s that people get bored while waiting. Researchers have found that unoccupied time feels longer than actual occupied time. When you have something to distract you, time passes more quickly. That’s why you see TV screens in doctors’ offices, magazines at hair salons, and mirrors and paintings outside elevator banks – to keep people preoccupied.

As awful as waiting can be, it is sometimes necessary, even helpful. It can be especially beneficial for our writing and creativity. Here’s how to make the most of those wait periods:

1. Catch up on your reading. Bring a book or magazine to read. It really does make time pass by more quickly, especially at a doctor’s office or while getting your hair done at the salon. You never know when that book can start a conversation with the person next to you in line.

2. People watch. If you’re lucky enough to have a window to look out of during your wait time, take advantage of it by watching the people go by. Reimagine their conversations. Imagine where they are coming from, what they do for a living. Create stories about them.

3. Jot down notes. I carry several small notebooks in my purse so when inspiration strikes me, I take notes before I forget them. I can refer to the notes later if I need ideas for stories. If you don’t have a notebook, look around for a spare sheet of paper to jot down notes. The note-taking keeps your hands and your mind busy so you don’t dwell on the long wait.

4. Do research. Do you need to do research for an upcoming project? Or maybe you are a news junkie who needs to stay updated on the latest news. Your smartphone (or laptop if you have it with you) are your gateways to knowledge.

5. Look around for inspiration. There are stories all around you. For example, if you’re at the airport, observe how the ticket agents handle customer issues. If you’re waiting for your prescription at the pharmacy, take note of the different products on the store shelves. What do they do? What ailments do they heal? Set aside your frustrations about waiting, and be curious.

6. Write about your waiting experience. There’s an instant story right there. Use the little notebooks from number 3 above to jot down ideas. Write about other times you’ve been forced to wait for something. Let your experience be your guide.

7. Take a walk. Stretch your legs. We do too much sitting around, so it’s important for our health to keep moving. Walk around for a change of scenery. It might also improve your mood.

8. Stop looking at the clock. In fact, put away your clock or watch altogether. The more you look at the time, the more it will seem to crawl, which will only frustrate you even more. When it’s out of sight, it’s out of your mind, and you won’t think about all the time you’re losing by waiting.

9. Learn to be patient. That’s what waiting ultimately does – help us become more patient.

Waiting doesn’t have to be a chore or a bore. With a little preparation, you can turn your enforced waiting into an opportunity. Make the most of it.

Six Ways Yoga Can Unblock Your Creativity

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I’ve practiced yoga for nearly 15 years. I’m certainly not advanced in my practice, but I certainly appreciate the nuances of a weekly vinyasa class. But I can tell you how yoga has helped me through some of the most difficult times of my life.

As I pursue my writing passion, I continue to include yoga in my regular self-care. That got me to thinking about possible connections between yoga and creativity. Is it possible that practicing yoga regularly can boost creativity? Many yoga practitioners, many of whom are writers and artists, say yes.

Here are six ways practicing yoga can help unlock your artistic side.

1. Yoga cultivates stillness to quiet the mind. We all lead active, busy lives. Between deadlines, social activities and social media, we are bombarded each day with information that can make us feel overwhelmed. Yoga gives us a chance to quiet the mind so we can hear our inner voice. Further, according to the Yoga International blog, when we work on our craft, the right word or color choices often come from deep within us. They’re intuitive choices. The best way to access this intuition is to quiet the mind. Yoga can help you achieve that.

2. Practice non-attachment to outcomes. As artists and writers, we can become so focused on the final product that we can become stressed about it. It’s important, say some yoga instructors, to detach yourself from the outcome. We need to bypass the internal critic whose negative commentary can stop us in our tracks. When we release those negative emotions, we open up a pathway to creativity without stressing about the result.

3. Increase energy. The energy body is the source of creativity, writes Anne Cushman, a yoga instructor and author on the Yoga International blog. A regular yoga practice not only increases physical energy, it releases internal energy blocks that we may be experiencing. With the increased energy flow, ideas can flow more freely and organically.

4. Reduce physical pain and suffering. Creative work can be very demanding, both physically and mentally. It’s hard to work when you’re in pain. It’s important to maintain our physical and mental health so we can produce our best work. But when we suffer, either physically or mentally, even emotionally, our creative process also suffers. Yoga helps release that pain, slowly and gradually. As we regain our strength, we gain stamina to endure the long, often intense creative process.

5. Break free of self-limiting thoughts. In the creative process, we can often become stuck in old self-defeating thought patterns. According to the Yoga Journal, yoga gives us the ability to see situations in a new light. It can help us break free of relentless, counterproductive thought loops. Once we release those patterns, we can approach the world with a more open and expansive mindset. That’s where the most innovative ideas thrive.

6. Learn to trust yourself. One of the toughest aspects of the creative life is accessing deep emotional feelings and releasing them through work. To do that, we have to conquer our fears, which can easily kill creativity. A regular yoga practice gradually releases self-doubt and fear and moves us to act and create without self-judgment and without the need to seek approval.

As creative workers, it’s easy to get lost in our own head. Yoga is a great way to get outside of ourselves. Yoga allows you to bring your problems to the mat. Yoga as part of a self-care program is critical to good health and improved creativity.

Is Lack of Sleep Hurting Your Creativity?

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This post was published originally in 2016. I’ve updated and revised for today’s posting.

How many hours of sleep do you typically get in one night? How much do you think you need to be at your best creatively?

Medical experts say most adults require at least seven to eight hours of sleep every night to function properly. Getting only five or six hours of quality sleep can affect us adversely. The National Sleep Foundation cites several ways that sleep — or the lack thereof — affects us:

* When you lose sleep, it’s harder to focus and pay attention to details, affecting things like school projects and job productivity. You more prone to making mistakes.

* Sleep slows reaction time, which can impact activities like driving and sports.

* Sleep feeds creativity, synthesizes new ideas, helps you solve problems and enhances innovative thinking.

* Sleep reactivates memories and strengthens connections between brain cells. Your brain simply works more efficiently.

According to the foundation, researchers suggest that sleeping shortly after learning new information will help you retain and recall that information later.

Lack of sleep can affect you in other ways. Emotionally, you may feel easily irritated and impatient which can put a strain on relationships. Physically, lack of sleep can affect your mood, cause weight gain, high blood pressure and other ailments.

We all lead busy lives, and as we take on more responsibilities, unfortunately, sleep becomes less of a priority.  How can you possibly think clearly, make critical decisions, remain calm under pressure and perform at your best without adequate sleep? The truth is, you don’t realize how valuable sleep is until you begin to lose it.

If your performance on the job can improve with better quality sleep, it makes sense that it can also sharpen your creativity.  If a lack of sleep is preventing you from producing your best creative work, here are a few tips to help you when sleep eludes you:

1. Keep a notebook by your bed. If your brain is racing with ideas or overthinking a problem, grab a notebook and pen and start writing them all down. Getting these ideas down on paper before sleep helps declutter your brain so you can sleep better.

2. Turn off all electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bed time. The lighting from your smart phone, TV and laptop can interfere with the chemicals in the brain that regulate sleep. Avoid watching TV or listening to music before bed time. (I find that this actually works.) It’s important to quiet the mind before sleep.

3. Give yourself 20 minutes to fall asleep. If after 20 minutes you can’t fall asleep, get up and read until you feel sleepy. Then try again.

4. Read before hitting the sack. This may seem counter-intuitive if you’re reading an engrossing page-turner, but reading for a few minutes each night before bedtime can also help you relax. Try reading something dull and boring, like a textbook.

5. Take a warm shower or bath. The warm water eases muscle tension and makes you sleepy.

6. Drink a glass of warm milk before heading off to bed. If you drink cow’s milk, try warming a mug of almond or cashew milk. You can also try chamomile tea, but it might make you go to the bathroom more often during the night, which only disrupts your sleep more. Wine and other alcoholic beverages might help you get to sleep, but you may have difficulty staying asleep.

7. Avoid sleeping pills. Some can be addictive, while others are ineffective. Other products on the market, like melatonin and Nyquil Zzzzs have had mixed results.

8. Go to bed at the same time every night. It’s important, experts say, to maintain a nighttime routine, regardless of how well you sleep. The better the routine, the better your chances are of having a regular sleep schedule.

Whether you are an artist, writer or business owner, you want to be at your creative and productive best. Getting a decent night’s sleep is the most valuable commodity you’ll ever need.

Seven Signs That You’re Sabotaging Your Writing Practice

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A writing practice is only as successful as your level of commitment to it. The more committed you are to a regular writing practice, the more consistent your output. Makes sense, right?

But what happens when you get oh-so-close to finishing your manuscript, but never seem to get around to finishing it? What happens when you do finish a story, but never seem to get around to submitting it to editors for possible publication? What if, instead of finishing your manuscript, you suddenly find other more pressing things to do, like clean the garage or spend more time with your mother-in-law? Is it really a matter of changing priorities? Or is something else going on?

I’m certainly guilty of these behaviors as I’m sure many other writers are. Psychology experts suggest that these patterns of behavior – procrastination and self-sabotage – are inbred in us. No one is immune to them. Even the most successful published authors have admitted that they have utilized these sabotage tactics.

It’s tempting to blame your tendency for self-sabotage on external factors, such as a demanding family life or a faulty computer. But unfortunately, blaming outside factors is a waste of time and energy. The only thing that is standing in the way of your own success is you. It’s time to get out of your own way.

From my experience, I’ve noted seven signs that you may be sabotaging your writing practice.

1. You stop writing indefinitely. You could be coasting along with your writing practice, meeting your daily writing goals and making steady progress on your story. You feel confident about your accomplishment. But then you stop writing. Why? What went wrong?

Maybe you got a negative review of your latest work that stops you in your tracks. Maybe you look at your life and question whether anyone else would find stories of your childhood interesting. Maybe you’ve read so much about writing that you feel overwhelmed and feel unsure how to begin your next project.

Giving up on your craft is not the answer. Letting your ideas fade into the distant past and collect dust isn’t the answer either. If you stop writing, but you still want to write, you need to figure out why. Give yourself a deadline of, say three days, to regroup and contemplate why you have stopped writing. Maybe it is a need for a mental break. If so, then when you are sufficiently rested, get back to work. The important thing is to keep writing. Ironically, it may be the very act of writing that breaks you out of your malaise.

2. You focus on the negative. You overanalyze your own writing and decide it’s simply not good enough – You’re not good enough. You constantly look for what’s wrong with your technique than with what’s right. All this focus on the negative qualities of your writing can undermine your confidence. Too much analysis can freeze you in place. The next time this happens, have one or two people review your work and give you positive feedback – something to keep you motivated so you keep writing.

3. You take criticism too personally. It can be disheartening to hear negative feedback about a piece you’ve been working on for weeks. Don’t let it paralyze you. Some critique is necessary. See the feedback as an opportunity to improve your writing. Most important, don’t take it personally.

4. You constantly compare your work with others. So what if other writers have more experience than you do or they’ve had more stories published. You need to remember that they started at the beginning at some point. Stop comparing yourself at the beginning of your career to someone else who is further along. That’s like comparing apples to bananas. You will never get ahead that way. If possible, try to stay in your own lane.

In this situation, you might also need to re-evaluate your goals and expectations. Have you set them too high? Are they unrealistic? It may be time for a rethink of your expectations to make them more manageable.

5. You don’t believe you have anything worthwhile to write about. Everyone has stories to share. Just because you think you don’t have anything interesting to write about doesn’t mean you don’t have anything interesting to write about. It’s all perception. When you feel your work is not worth reading, it can be tempting to stop writing. Again, keep writing until you find a story worth telling others. If needed, ask someone to read your work.

Every experience in life counts for something. Every experience is worth writing about. The story is your perception of events as they unfolded and how they impacted your life. Believe that there’s a story everywhere you look. Believe that you do have something worthwhile to share – then start writing about it.

6. You focus too much on the past. We’ve all suffered failures in our lives. We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve all had situations that did not work out. Understandably, we don’t want to repeat those mistakes. Learn from those mistakes, then move on. Just because you made them once before does not mean you will make them again. Stop focusing on the past and stay focused on the present.

7. You focus too much on the future. Perhaps you dream of earning your own byline in a high-profile magazine or you are determined to get your manuscript published. But those goals are meaningless if you haven’t written a single word. It’s easy to get way ahead of ourselves, but just as in point #6 above, it’s imperative to stay in the present moment.

You can’t change the past and you can’t control the future. So you might as well stay in the present and make the most of it – by writing.

Celebrating the Freedom to Write

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America is about to celebrate its independence on July 4th. It seems only fitting that I examine one of life’s greatest freedoms: the freedom to write. Here’s what I came up with.

1. Writing and reading are basic human rights. From my volunteer work with Chicago Books to Women in Prison, I’ve come to realize that not everyone has easy access to books. That fact saddens me. I believe every human being, no matter where they live or where they grew up, is entitled to reading and writing and all the benefits and joys those activities bring. I could not imagine a world without having the ability to read and write or without access to books and pens and paper. Every person should have access to these things. Reading and writing bring peace of mind even through our darkest moments. They’re like security blankets for the soul.

2. Writing and reading are gateways to higher learning. Without the ability to read and write, individuals are limited in what they can learn and what they can achieve and how much they can grow. Without reading and writing, how would we ever learn about history, science or world cultures, or any other subject that tickles our imagination? Reading and writing are the stepping stones to knowledge and wisdom. They open our minds to different expressions of thought and conversation.

3. Writing is self-expression. It enables us to find the right words and phrases to speak our minds, share family stories, tell our truths, divulge long-held secrets, reveal our emotions, express opinions and bare our souls to the world. Writing is the pathway to healing from tragedy and turmoil. Just as important, writing allows us to celebrate the joys and triumphs of life too.

4. Writing is the ultimate form of communication. Sometimes it’s easier to communicate in writing than by speaking. Whether we choose to use a pen, pencil or laptop, writing lets us form connections with others. We don’t live as islands, secluded and alone. Writing helps us to reach out to others when speaking may be difficult.

5. Writing is self-discovery. It’s a way of connecting with ourselves. It’s how we gain access to the ideas in our head before transmitting them into words on a page. Writing allows us to explore the inner workings of our hearts and souls. How can we possibly understand who we are, how we feel and what we stand for if we don’t put those thoughts down on paper (or the screen)?

6. Writing is finding your voice. As I mentioned earlier, writing is a form of self-expression. But before you get to that point, you must find your voice. I believe we have two types of voices – the one we hear inside our head and the one we express through words, either written or verbally. In a world where conflicting voices clamor to be heard, it can be difficult, sometimes even impossible, to know which voice is yours and which belongs to someone else. It can be too easy to follow the voice that is louder, more authoritative and insistent, especially when we’re struggling to find our voice. Writing allows us to gain access to our internal voice so it can become stronger and louder. The more you write, the more confident your voice becomes.

7. Writing is independent thinking. As your inner voice becomes more confident, stronger, and louder, you may realize that your voice stands alone in the world. Others may not agree with you or support you. That’s okay because how you think and what you believe makes you stand out from the crowd. That is why so many writers live solitary lives. That solitary thought process is a path to better, more independent thinking. That’s what sets you apart from everyone else. Would you rather follow the crowd with your voice drowned out by others? Or would you prefer to set your own path, even though you may walk it alone? Writing guides you on the path that is truly your own.

8. Writing is exercising your right to freedom of speech. Last I checked, the U.S. is still a free country. It protects our right for freedom of speech. We may not always like what someone says or writes about in the press, and we may not agree with someone’s point of view. But it’s imperative that we allow them the right to free speech just as we would want them to allow us to have our say. Even more important, it’s important to protect those freedoms. They belong to every American. It’s okay to disagree. In fact, it’s vital to have differences of opinion if we are to understand one another better. It’s just not okay to shut someone down or drown out their voice.

The beautiful thing about writing is that it means different things to different people. Writing is as individual as you and me. It’s what helps us understand ourselves and each other. It’s what helps us makes sense of the world around us and within us. It’s what helps us be human. Writing is life.

Thank you for reading. This is my only post this week. Happy 4th of July, and celebrate safely.

How to Give Writing Feedback — Thoughtfully and Effectively

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Whether you’re part of a writer’s group or manage a department of creatives, you may be called upon to give feedback about someone else’s work. It can be doubly difficult to critique someone’s work, especially if you like and respect that person. You don’t want to upset them or discourage them from writing more. On the contrary, you want to provide feedback that will challenge them to produce better work.

Most experts agree that it’s important to provide some positive comments along with negative feedback. Critiques without positive comments can be devastating to creative types, who are naturally sensitive about work that they’ve poured their heart and soul into. Negative critiques can make writers feel their work has no redeeming value, and they may be tempted to give up writing altogether. There is always something positive to find about someone’s work. A good editor will see it and won’t hesitate to share it.

So what’s the best way to handle critiques? How can you provide meaningful feedback that supports and encourages other people to produce better work without crushing their soul? Here are a few tips for giving effective feedback.

1. Read the piece thoroughly. If it’s a shorter piece, like an essay or news article, read it several times. Here’s how I like to assess a written work: The first time through, I read to get the gist of the story. During the second reading, I make notes about technical issues, like grammar, punctuation and run-on sentences. The third time through, I make notes about content issues. Are there confusing plot points? Does the story flow seamlessly, or are there sticking points where nothing appears to be happening? It’s usually during that third reading that the biggest issues pop out like a neon sign. If possible, avoid reading the piece right before meeting with the writer. It simply does not allow enough time to mull over the writing.

2. Find the story’s good qualities. Don’t just focus on mistakes and confusing content. Start with sharing the positive qualities of the story. Some managers and editors have used the sandwich method for critiquing a person’s work — couching negative feedback between two positive statements. According to the Grammarly blog, some editorial experts claim that this method isn’t effective in providing constructive criticism. I see nothing wrong with this approach, however. I suspect that its lack of effectiveness has more to do with not properly communicating constructive feedback.

Here’s how the sandwich method works:

“I love your story idea. I think it’s sharp and witty, and a lot of people will appreciate the humor. However, I noticed a tendency for run-on sentences. Perhaps you were thinking faster than you could write? Sometimes it helps to read aloud your story so you notice those run-on sentences. Once you fix those run-on sentences, I think you’ll have a stronger story..

You notice that I not only pointed out the weakness of the story, I offered a suggestion for fixing it.

3. Choose your words carefully. According to the Balance Careers blog, it might be helpful to begin statements with “I” rather than “You.” The “you” focus can be perceived as a personal attack, which you want to avoid. Focus on your own response to the story. Instead of saying, “Your story is boring,” say “I found the story boring in some sections.”

Be honest with your critique, but approach it with the intent of helping the writer improve their work. Always offer suggestion or tips, but refrain from directing the writer how to fix things. Respect them enough to give them space for resolving their own writing issues.

4. Provide detail… Don’t just mention the issue, but provide some detail. Don’t just say, “I thought your story was boring.” Explain why you thought it was boring. Was the entire piece boring to you, or just one or two paragraphs? Was there too much narrative when you were looking for more dialogue? Did the story need more conflict? Did the story move off on a tangent that was difficult to follow and had nothing to do with the story? The more feedback you provide can help the writer analyze their story with an eye on improving it.

5. …But don’t nitpick. You might notice a lot of things wrong with the story. In that case, for the sake of your working relationship, focus on only one or two things that the writer can easily fix. Remember, your role is to provide helpful, practical suggestions.

6. Call out recurring mistakes right away. If you have read several pieces by the same writer over time and notice that they tend to make the same mistakes over and over again, you need to call them out right away, suggests the marketing experts at Hubspot. Don’t just fix the problems for them without mentioning it. If necessary, make the correction and show it to them so they see how to fix it. The only way they will learn not to make the same mistakes again is to make them aware of them in the first place. The sooner you mention those errors, the sooner they can learn to correct them on their own.

7. Ask questions to guide the writer. According to Grammarly, when you ask the writer questions about their work, it gets them to thinking about how to solve their own writing issues. It guides them to resolve the issues on their own rather than you telling them how to do it. For example, you might suggest, “Is there a way to simplify this paragraph, perhaps edit it for shorter sentences? It might make the story easier to read.”

8. Don’t make it personal. Critique the work, not the writer. Set aside whatever personal feelings you have toward the writer and focus on the work in front of you.

Remember these are works-in-progress, not finished pieces. Your job is to provide feedback to help the writer improve their work and sharpen their skills. Think about those times when you’ve had your own work critiqued. How did you feel when you received feedback? Did you feel deflated and discouraged, or were you energized and excited about moving forward with your story? Be the editor you’d like others to be with your own work.

Six Ways to Develop Great Listening Skills

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During the month of June, I’m focusing on the topic of interpersonal communications skills.

As communicators, you would think good listening skills come naturally to us, just like breathing or swallowing. But just because we were born with two ears doesn’t mean we listen well to others.

Research shows that people spend 53 percent of their daily communications activities on listening compared to 17 percent for reading, 16 percent for speaking and 14 percent for writing. Yet the average listener retains only half of the information they heard immediately after hearing it, and only one-fourth of the information after 48 hours. We must all learn to listen, not out of a need to memorize, but to comprehend. That takes practice and patience.

Most people assume that good listening involves three things:

* Not talking while the other person is speaking
* Using facial expressions and verbal sounds (Hmmm-hmmm) to let others know you’re listening
* Repeating back what you’ve just heard from the speaker

This three-pronged approach called active listening has been taught for decades. But good listening is more than this, say leadership consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman in Harvard Business Review.

We’re not sponges soaking up every concept, Zenger and Folkman say. Rather good listening works like a trampoline where there’s a bounce back effect. Speakers and listeners bounce ideas off one another to amplify, energize and clarify thinking.

Zenger and Folkman say great listeners do the following:

* Ask questions to gain better insight. Sitting in silence with an occasional nod of the head does nothing to confirm to the speaker that you understand what was said. Asking questions signals to the speaker that you desire to learn more.

* Make the speaker feel supported. Great listeners make interactions a positive experience for the other party, which doesn’t happen if a listener is passive, or worse, critical. This supportive environment is characterized by creating a safe environment in which issues and differences of opinion can be discussed openly and freely.

* Create a cooperative environment for conversation. Feedback flows freely in all directions. Neither party gets defensive about comments. By comparison, poor listeners are perceived as competitive; they listen only to identify errors in judgment, reasoning or logic.

* Make suggestions and provide feedback. Good listeners may challenge assumptions and disagree, but they do so with the intent to help the other party, not hurt them or win an argument.

So how do good communicators develop better listening skills? Here are a few tips from Fast Company.

1. Be present. You can be sitting in the first row staring up at the speaker, but your mind can be a million miles away writing your marketing plan in your head. Though your body is in place, your attention is not. Learn to be present in the moment. Give the speaker your undivided attention, no matter how boring their presentation may be. Avoid distractions – put away the phone, put down your pen, shut off the laptop. If you notice your mind wandering, bring it back to the present.

If that doesn’t work, imagine if the roles were reversed. If you were speaking, wouldn’t you want people to give their undivided attention to you? Of course, you would. With that in mind, be fully present wherever you are.

2. Listen to learn. Be curious. Communicators by nature are curious people, so this should not be an issue. Nevertheless, listen to gain better understanding. Don’t just listen out of politeness or because you’re supposed to. Listening out of politeness doesn’t help you gain a better understanding of the other party’s meaning.

3. Set aside your personal agenda. We each have our reasons for participating in the conversation or want to achieve something from it. Maybe it’s to ask for their help on a project or persuade a different outcome on a decision. Whatever it is, that’s your own personal agenda. “When you think of your own agenda, you shut off the opportunity to truly listen and learn something from the other person,” says Hal Gregerson of MIT Leadership Center, interviewed for the Fast Company story. “It’s important to be open to new information that you’re not looking for but need to hear.”

4. Ask questions. Listening well and asking questions shows a willingness on your part to being proven wrong, whether it’s misinformation or an assumption about something. Asking questions shows your interest in the speaker and what they have to say. It also creates a safe space to have an open discussion. Asking questions helps you learn more from the speaker and shows you are engaged in the conversation.

5. Wait to respond. Like waiting for a stoplight to change from red to green, great listeners need to sense when it’s a good time to respond and when they need to hold their tongue. One of the most difficult aspects of listening effectively is waiting for that natural pause at the end of the sentence where listeners can ask questions or offer a rebuttal. Patience is key, and poor listeners aren’t very patient. When you begin to form a reply before the speaker has finished speaking, you communicate to others that your opinion is more important than theirs. Great listeners suspend their judgment and wait for the right moment to engage in conversation.

6. Repeat back what you heard. Not sure if what you heard was accurate? Need clarification? Repeat the speaker’s words. For example, “Let me get this straight. You believe all education should be free to students? Why?” Repeating back is a technique that’s been around for decades. Management experts says it’s a proven technique that defuses arguments because it slows down the pace of conversation. Repeating back encourages further discussion and gives speakers and listeners a chance to clarify and gain better understanding.

Great listeners are not born. But with proper training, practice and patience, good communicators can become great listeners.