Listening is one of the most important skills you can have when it comes to business and leadership.

We listen to learn.

We listen to stay informed.

We listen to understand.

We listen to gain information.

We listen to acquire knowledge.

We listen to obtain wisdom.

Given all the listening we do, you would think we would be much better at it.

In fact most of us are lousy listeners. Research suggests that we remember only 25 to 50 percent of what we hear.

So when your boss, colleague, customer, or spouse is talking to you, you are only truly hearing half of what they are saying--at most.

Being a good listener has significant benefits. It helps you build critical relationships with clients, bond with customers, and engage with employees.

That, in turn, builds trust and confidence. That trust encourages loyalty, and that confidence motivates productivity. And, of course, this all equates to increased profitability.

Here are seven ways to build your listening abilities and help ensure you're able to reap the rewards when it comes to your business.

1. Clear your head.

When you listen, you cannot be doing anything else. Clear your mind; stop thinking of your beliefs and positions and what you're going to say next. Be ready to truly hear what the other person is saying so you can benefit from their thoughts, opinions, and ideas.

2. Remember that it's more than words.

To truly listen, you must pay attention to what is being said beneath the words. Listen for the essence of what is being said. Look beyond the surface. Make an effort to hear the words that the other person is saying, and, more importantly, to understand the complete message that is being conveyed. Give your full, undivided attention to the speaker at every level.

3. Fight distraction.

Resist the natural urge to be distracted by whatever else may be going on around you, or by forming counter arguments that you'll make when the other person stops speaking. Don't let your mind wander so that you lose focus. All of these contribute to a lack of listening and understanding.

4. Set aside your prejudices.

An essential part of listening is the discipline of setting aside one's own prejudices in order to step into the shoes of another. Learn to silence your personal thoughts and opinions in such a way that you can address the needs of other people directly.

5. Listen with your whole body.

Look directly at the speaker, lean in, and be interested. Listen and learn. Watch your body language and watch the body language of the person speaking. Use smiles, nods, and gestures to signal your engagement and connection.

6. Don't interrupt.

Resist the urge to interrupt; it frustrates the speaker and derails the point being made. Allow the speaker to finish his or her thought before jumping in to ask questions. Don't interrupt with counter arguments or to add your own ideas. When you listen, you listen; when you speak, you speak. There is a time for everything.

7. Respond.

When the speaker has finished talking and it's your turn to speak, be open, inquisitive, and honest with your response. Assert your opinions, ask the right questions, and do it all with great respect. Treat the other person as you would want to be treated.

For leaders, listening is a central competence for success. For business, listening is a competitive advantage.

At its core, listening is effectively connecting and engaging. Your ability to understand the true spirit of a message as it is intended to be communicated, and to demonstrate your understanding, is paramount in forming connections and leading effectively.

Listening is an acquired skill. It takes a lot of determination and concentration. But if done right, it will help you become a better communicator and develop stronger relationships--important elements of success in any field.

Published on: Feb 26, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.