At some point in time most of us have come across an acquaintance, exchanged cursory hellos and been asked the customary, "How are you?" only to respond and find that we are standing by ourselves, scratching our heads and talking to the wind.

Or, perhaps even worse, the other person is still there, but not listening to a word of what you are saying. You could be admitting that you just declared bankruptcy, are facing the loss of your home and all your life savings, and they murmur something like… "Oh, that's nice, well have a great day!" and march off, oblivious to what just transpired. Come on, you know it's happened to all of us at one time or another. Maybe you're even guilty of committing this dastardly deed yourself. Many people have either lost, or simply never possessed, the art of listening.

We were told we should never say, "I know how you feel"Today, more than ever, in a society void of interpersonal connections which had once existed before electricity, cars and computers, we need to listen, and be listened to. Though we are truly fortunate to be living in this era of modern technology, our lives often lack those intimate moments of eye-to-eye communication, really hearing one another, or receiving that special hug when we need it. We're so busy carpooling our kids, rushing off to work, running home to whip up a hurried meal, or scurrying to drive our children to the extra-curricular activities planned for their already busy weeks. I'm exhausted just thinking about the accelerated, non-stop merry-go-round of life… let's just get off for a moment, shall we? Let's stop and listen… to ourselves, our bodies, to others around us.

How does one listen effectively? When I was trained as a social worker (oh so many years ago), we were told that we should never say, "I know how you feel." That rule still applies today, as one can never experience the exact same feelings as another person. But we can communicate empathy (not sympathy, or pity, which may, in fact be detrimental rather than helpful), a close facsimile which assists us in comprehending how one would feel in their shoes.

We all possess some ability to impart warmth and compassion. Sometimes, it just takes a little practice to reach a new level in the art of understanding others.

The following tips for effective listening apply to relationships which are free of abuse or violence in nature.

What is key in any face to face conversation is eye-to-eye contact and avoiding distractions which can affect our ability to pay close attention to the verbal content and body language of the talker. From time to time it is helpful to reframe the person's communication in your own words, checking with them periodically to see if it matches what they are feeling. The latter step provides the individual with some proof that you are in sync with what he/she is saying, that you can "read between the lines." This is crucial in order to establish a sense of trust which is the building block or foundation for further discussion.

Avoid the temptation to constantly bring the focus back to youAnother important factor is a non-judgmental attitude; in other words, refraining from imposing your values and opinions about the nature of the disclosure, no matter how difficult this may be (again, with the exception of dangerous or violent content, which you must extract yourself from immediately and seek referral for him/her as this individual must be helped by competent experts).

A meaningful listening exercise also involves the ability to convey genuine interest in that person and what he/she is telling you. This means avoiding the temptation to constantly bring the focus back to you. The recipe for this step requires a pinch of altruism, a generous sprinkling of patience, and at least a cup of insight into your own needs at the time.

The above is not meant as a mini course in listening skills but rather a preview of what we can all achieve if we pay close attention to our children, spouses, sisters, brothers, friends, neighbors, and yes, sometimes even strangers. There are many resources out there which can assist you in filling your listening toolbox with some practical applications. The really amazing benefits to improving these skills are that it: a) draws others to you and b) makes you feel empowered and, quite frankly, wonderful, because it allows each of us to make a difference in the life of another human being.

Will better listening achieve world peace, eliminate the genocide of millions of people throughout the world, help prevent tragedies such as senseless shootings or the abuse of innocent individuals? Perhaps. It could certainly mean the difference between a troubled friend losing hope and eventually drowning in a sea of despair or grasping onto an oar and swimming to shore. We must take responsibility in our own communities for helping create a safer, more responsive environment.

Effective listening may not cure the world of all its ills. However, it can guarantee, particularly if we begin teaching this process to our children, that we are all one step closer to the old-fashioned idea of communicating with each other in a very personal and lasting way, touching the very core of our beings and freeing our spirits to thrive, to soar through each life journey with a hand on our shoulder offering the comforting knowledge that we are not alone.