Effective Listening & Aphorisms

Effective listening relies on nonverbal communication and aphorisms.

Posted Nov 17, 2011

I am not usually someone who enjoys using clichés however, I am sure you know when a sentence starts with a warning like that, a cliché is about to be delivered so brace yourself:

We have one mouth and two ears for a reason.*

Here is one more. I use this one during body language and nonverbal communication trainings too:

The opposite of listening is waiting to speak.**

You know your own opinion, your wants, and your needs all too well, but do you know theirs? 

Aside of assuming you know their perspective, the more accurate way of actually understanding their perspective is giving them the opportunity to speak.  This means for you to listen and not speak!

How do you listen?  This brings me to the next cliché above, or perhaps instead of calling it a cliché, I think more accurately it is an aphorism- a short saying with great value.

Genuine listening includes not practicing what you are going to say or planning your response or rebuttal.  Think about it- how often do you actually listen or rather just wait for the other person to finish speaking?  Now think about it- do leak out signals that you are not listening in your body language?

This leakage, or un-intended nonverbal communication, can include:

  • Fidgeting with objects (a pen, necklace, earring),
  • Lack of eye contact,
  • Self-touching (touching your ear, back of your neck, between your collarbone area),
  • Rolling your eyes, and
  • Back-channel and paralanguage (huffing or audible noises and that teeth-sucking noise)

The pictures provided show variations of how professionals and well-known people listen.  Have a look at each and reflect on which ones you consider positive, neutral, and negative.  Now, consider, do you know how you listen?

Christiane Amanpour of ABC's This Week, 'Listening'

George Will, guest on ABC's This Week, 'Listening'

President Obama, 'Listening'

Ellen DeGeneres 'Listening'

I have three simple suggestions on how to listen effectively:

1.     Prepare.  Preparing prior to engaging the person or event, if possible, allows you to avoid having to prepare yourself during the moment.  Trust me, you cannot listen and prepare at the same time.  I have tried and failed!

2.     Listen With Your Mind & Body.  Our thoughts leak out through our body and it also works in the opposite direction too.  Embodied cognition tells us that our body shapes how we think.  Maintaining eye contact, nodding, and positioning your body towards the person not only shows you are listening, but it also shows you care about what they have to say.

3.     Check In.  Take a very brief moment during the interaction to check in with yourself and very quickly ask yourself, "Am I am listening and am I displaying I am listening?"  Here's a tip- if you are texting someone else while they are talking, that is definitely not a sign of listening.

One thing to keep in mind is the context and our emotions are constantly changing each moment and each day. 

What does that mean? 

It means, that effective listening, and all communication and the nonverbal elements will always be a work in progress.  There is not a "finish line" however by practicing, preparing, and reflecting we can each become more effective.

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* Based on a saying attributed to Epictetus.

**Variation of a Scott Ginsberg quote.