Don’t just act interested — be interested.

I love this quote by Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics Inc, “Everyone has an invisible sign hanging over their neck saying make me feel important.”

As a leader with the responsibility of developing people, listening and being sincerely interested is a critical skill. I am not sure we can ever perfect it, however there is no substitute for practice, practice, practice.

There is an old joke that says “you can’t fake sincerity,” well in my opinion you can’t fake interest either, so save your energy and don’t even try. The more you want to influence and get through to discerning your people, the more sincere your interest in them needs to be.

How do you improve the skill of being interested, while being sincere when you do it? I have learned the first key is to stop thinking of a conversation as a tennis match (she scored a point, now it’s my turn). Instead, think of it as a detective game ( let’s play “Columbo”).

Your goal is to learn as much about the other person as you can. Go into the conversation with the expectation of learning. Believe me, this will become evident in your eyes and body language. They will feel your interest. Allow them to tell the story. Often we are tempted to jump in as soon as we can –do everything you can to avoid this.

Lastly, do your homework. Come prepared with questions that demonstrate genuine interest. In a business setting, I’ve found questions that begin with “what, how, tell me more, what would it mean? ” can be effective. Remember, you’re building an organization of people. People need to know that you care, that you’re invested in them, and that you’re interested in what they’re saying, and how they’re doing.