Have you ever returned home to find the washing in the rain, the dinner uncooked or no milk in the fridge even though you asked your spouse or housemate to take in the washing/turn the oven on/buy milk and they agreed? And there you are shaking your head, insisting that your spouse or housemate even said “yes” or “no problem” to your request and now he or she claims to have no recollection of the conversation. At that point you begin to wonder how often that person smiles and nods and agrees with you, but in actual fact they’ve tuned out! How do you know when someone is really listening to you and taking on board what you are saying?
It is not just at home that we find we are ignored. The people we work with also have an annoying knack of disregarding good advice, or forgetting what they agreed to do! Researchers at the University of Minnesota studied students who had just attended lectures and found that they could only remember half of what the lecturers told them immediately after the lecture finished. The good news is that there are signs that indicate someone is listening and taking on board what you are saying. To be an effective communicator you need to know about these signs and watch for them.
Gauge attentiveness through body position
First, body positioning will give you an indication as to whether the listener is paying attention. An open body stance, with uncrossed arms and legs indicates friendliness. Look at where someone’s feet are pointed, often that reveals where their attention is directed. An engaged listener will also lean slightly towards you. This shows an eagerness to receive the message. If you are addressing a crowd and you have a large number of people with crossed-arms and legs leaning away from you, then you are not resonating with them and need to change tack. Also fidgeting is a sign that your audience or listener wants to escape from you. An attentive, willing listener is usually still, which indicates their mind is engaged.
Watch out for physical cues, like smiles
Second, keep an eye out for physical cues that they have taken your message on board – did they smile at your joke? An inattentive spouse may have learned to smile and nod at you while they are lost in their own thoughts, but an attentive listener will have a range of facial expressions appropriate to your message. Also people tend to blink less when concentrating. The mind slows physical responses while focussing on the cerebral. Someone who is really absorbed in your message may even mirror your body position. You see this when people are on dates and hitting it off. One person may have their right hand on their cheek and the other person on the date will ‘mirror’ them with left hand on their cheek. This subconscious act means the listener is connecting with you on a deeper level.
Invite participatory input
Third, you might want to invite participatory input while imparting an important message. If you are briefing a colleague or giving someone a tip as a life coach, it is always a good idea to pause and say, ‘what do you think?’. If you have attended or listened to my lectures you will notice that I frequently invite the audience to participate. Remember that research I mentioned from the University of Minnesota. Students who had just attended lectures could only remember half of what the lecturers were trying to teach immediately after the lecture. Well, two months later they could only remember 25 percent of the content! Pay attention to oral affirmations, like “uh-huh” and “mm,” because these suggest that the listener is hearing and understanding your message.
To recap, you need to look out for body position, physical cues (like smiles) and an affirmation, such as “sure, I’ll do”. Remember that people can dupe us by smiling and nodding, but you need to look for multiple indicators – where are their toes pointing, are their arms crossed, has their blinking slowed. Naturally if you are addressing a crowd you will have the time to study these cues, but if you are just speaking to a spouse or forgetful housemate you will need to invest extra time studying their level of engagement, however if you feel they rarely listen this time will be well spent. You’ll work out where you stand with them, although you may unfortunately discover that you are invisible as far as they are concerned!
Relevant questions mean you’ve been heard
A guarantee that someone is listening is when they ask relevant questions. This shows they have taken the message on board and are seeking further information. Also they may be curious. Disengaged listeners ask off-topic questions. If you are addressing a large crowd you must leave time for questions at the end of your formal address. It not only gives the audience a chance to interact with you, but it will help you gauge how much of the message they took on board.
I need to stress that it is essential that you avoid distractions when imparting a message. Ideally do not tell your husband to get the washing in when he is welding, do not ask your flat mate to put the oven on through the bathroom door when they are showering. Carnegie Mellon University found that a ringing phone cuts a person's listening ability by up to 20 percent. If you are addressing an audience ask everyone in the crowd to turn their phones off before you start talking.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a motivational speaker addressing hundreds or just trying to get the attention of teenage children, the reactions I’ve gone over do indicate how engaged the listener is. You need to look for these cues, because you cannot communicate with influence if no one is listening!
ABOUT PAT MESITI
Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.