What Did I Say?
A common refrain in our home is, "Can you tell me what I just said?" I'm often surprised when people answer in the affirmative, given the multimedia lovefest taking place under our roof.
We use verbal and nonverbal communication when we speak and when we listen. Last week's post, "When Listening Isn't Hearing," shared verbal skills that help us move beyond hearing just the spoken words to being able to hear the speaker's heart. We can use verbal components of speech to help our clients, coworkers and loved ones feel "heard."
Nonverbal communication also plays a major role in letting others know we care. In a society fixated on multitasking, our nonverbal actions can give others the impression we aren't interested in what they have to say. If our eyes are on computer screens, for example, the people speaking to us feel like we aren't giving them our attention.
Sometimes if you ask the listeners, "What did I say," they can totally tell you -- verbatim. Their answer shocks you because of what they were doing while you were talking to them. Even if they can repeat what you said, you still don't feel like you've truly been "heard." You leave the conversation feeling empty -- like the communication was lacking.
Communication classes place a great deal of emphasis on the speaker's nonverbal actions but spend less time discussing the listener's nonverbal communication. Implementing a few simple tips can show the people speaking to you that you care.
1. Put away distractions. Close your laptop. Turn off the television. Close your book -- after you've bookmarked it, of course. Let the person speaking with you know he has your full attention. At work, specific to therapists, put down your pen and the patient's chart or the computer. Some clinic supervisors expect therapists to chart during their visits. Conversation may be nothing more than polite chit chat to fill the time. However, you should be prepared for patients to share from their hearts a concern or a triumph. For those conversations, stop what you're doing and listen without distractions.
2. Ask the speaker to wait. It's okay to ask the speaker to give you a minute to remove distractions. If you have one sentence left in your patient note, if you are 15 seconds from the end of a computer game, if you have two minutes left in a TV show -- ask the speaker to wait. As a speaker I'd rather let my listener finish the last five minutes of her show than have her wondering how it ends the entire time I'm speaking. (Side note: A wise speaker will ask her listener, "Is this a good time to talk, or do we need to get together later?")
3. Make eye contact. Looking at people when they're speaking let's them know you're listening. Granted, you could be looking someone in the eyes and be zoning out. Still, most people stand a much better chance of paying attention if they're making eye contact. If you're one of those people who can't sit still and pay attention, let your speaker know and make adjustments that work for both of you.
4. Use open body language and avoid closed body positions. Open body language -- leaving the trunk exposed through open arm and leg positions -- shows the speaker that you're engaged in the conversation. A listener also exhibits an open posture through pleasant facial expressions and leaning slightly forward toward the speaker, as well as appropriate head nodding and body mirroring. A closed body position indicates the listener is not receptive to the speaker. As one might suspect, closed body positioning -- distressing facial expressions, closed arm and leg positions, leaning away from the speaker, and a stiffened posture -- is opposite of open body language.
Nonverbal communication is often a subconscious act. We don't realize we're smiling or frowning, leaning forward or leaning away, sitting relaxed with our arms to our sides, or sitting stiffly with our arms and legs crossed. Alice Springs School of the Air's PDF on nonverbal communication suggests listeners may have a preferred posture simply because it's comfortable for them. The author(s) suggests that shifts in listeners' body language (from open to closed, or vice versa) are far more telling than their static postures.
What is your nonverbal communication telling people who are speaking to you, and how can you become a more attentive listener?