Join Brenda Bailey-Hughes for an in-depth discussion in this video Attune to subtle cues, part of Effective Listening.
- Can you hear body language on the phone? Can you figure out who came to the party with whom after you have spent some time at the venue? These are the types of questions I would ask you to find out if you were attending to subtle cues. Being attuned to subtle cues is all about reading nonverbal signals that are vital in conveying meaning. In many cultures, direct verbal communication is not the norm. Even in the United States, not everything is communicated verbally. Many things are left unsaid, and listeners must read between the lines.
Being attuned to subtle cues allows you to read between the lines and gather additional meaning. Reading these subtle cues prepares you for stellar listening. You may be hearing someone communicate a message, but if the cues you receive don't match up, you need to adjust your response. For example, I asked Brenda for her opinion on a project, and she tells me that she agrees, but the conversation looks a little bit like this. She says yes, but she doesn't directly look at me, and her posture communicates something totally different.
Some nonverbal cues are very subtle and tough to decipher. Recently, I was the afternoon speaker for an organization having their annual offsite. I planned to spend the day with the group and was invited to attend the morning sessions, all but the first one. See, the first session involved company sensitive information that I was not privy to. The administrator I worked with asked me if I had enjoyed the coffee in the morning and gestured to the table outside of the room, asking that I have another cup while they got started.
Can you imagine how awkward it would have been if I said, oh, I'd love another cup. I can just drink it in the back of the conference room. Gladly, I was sharp enough to get the message and not invite myself in the conference room. The late anthropologist, Edward Hall, spent years observing people and documenting their nonverbals. In his inaugural academic book, The Silent Language, he outlines the theory of explicit or verbal versus informal, nonverbal forms of communication.
Hall was famous for spending hours at a time watching people while sitting on the park bench and taking copious notes. Being able to read subtle cues is an essential listening skill. If you're not that well versed in this skill, do what Professor Hall did. Watch people. You may need a communication interpreter, someone who knows the context, the people, or the culture. Spend time debriefing with them as part of your skill-building in the subtle cue reading division.
If reading subtle cues is not your strong suit, I encourage you to either watch people converse in another language or watch television shows. Soap operas are the best for this exercise, and try to figure out the story plot. Another day-to-day activity you can practice is walking into a meeting where you don't know the members and their positions and trying to figure out who is whose boss. As I mentioned earlier, subtle cues can sometimes be tricky. So don't be afraid to enlist a nonverbal interpreter.
- Recalling details
- Avoiding distractions and the feeling of being overwhelmed
- Clarifying your role
- Using attentive nonverbal cues
- Paraphrasing what was said
- Matching emotions and mirroring