Join Brenda Bailey-Hughes for an in-depth discussion in this video Using attentive nonverbal cues, part of Effective Listening.
You might have heard the remarkable statistic first published by UCLA psychologist Albert Mehrabian, 93 percent of what is communicated is the emotional meaning of a message. This interpretation comes from nonverbals, those being tone of voice, and body language. Some of the experiments involved a speaker sharing several negative words with a positive tone, while the listeners rated those words. All words that had a positive tone were ranked as being positive, even though the literal words were negative.
As an active listener, most of your words can be short interjections of agreement. "Hm," "Yes," "Uh huh," "Seriously?" All you need to do is to communicate that you're listening attentively. Especially if your listening is happening over the phone. "Uh huh," "I see," "Wow!" Remember that the tone is more important than your actual words. Keep it upbeat, if the message is positive. Empathetic, if the message is serious. And intensely attentive, if the message is critical.
Now, for the real nonverbal listening responses that do not include tone or short words. Facial expressions. In the United States, smiling usually communicates openness, confidence, happiness. It's appropriate to smile back at your speaker when they're sharing a positive message. If you're not sure, keep your smile at about 20 percent of full capacity to demonstrate attentiveness and openness. I remember working with an executive that had the frowniest listening face I had ever seen.
He would focus so attentively to what was being said, sink his chin into his hand, and engage every muscle in his forehead for a full-blown wrinkle-fest. As a result, all of his staff dreaded sharing new ideas in a meeting or presenting in front of him. He worked hard on a ten to twenty percent smile, and a relaxed forehead while he nodded positively. It made a huge difference. Eye contact.
Like a smile, eye contact can have varied meanings around the world. But in the US, it's used for listeners to encourage the speaker and show that they welcome their message. Regardless of geographic location, I encourage you to follow the speaker's lead with eye contact. If they're not engaging as much as you, don't try to stare them down, mirror their behavior, and make them comfortable by looking down or away, every once in awhile. Personal space.
Depending on how well you know your speaker, your personal space can be varied anywhere from two to four feet in a familiar situation, or up to four feet or more, in a social situation. Regardless of the baseline space arrangement, leaning in with your head, or your entire body, shows that you're listening attentively. Head tilting, hand-reaching or an open palm gesture saying, "Please proceed," all communicate active listening.
If you wonder what message you're passing along to your speaker, audio or video record yourself and critique your nonverbal behaviors. Professionals in several sectors from education, to medicine and customer service use this as a standard form of feedback. Since 93 percent of what you communicate as a listener does not come from your words be attentive to nonverbal behaviors.
- 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