Become a Listening Master, Step 3: Read The Speaker

To understand what someone is trying to tell you, listening to words alone isn’t enough. Most children communicate with gestures long before they speak. Even as we get older, we continue to communicate mostly through our bodies. I remember my younger cousin Opal watching sign language videos when she was two years old. Opal wasn’t deaf but struggled with words, yet in a few months she was conversant in sign language! Just as my aunt and uncle better understood Opal when they read both her verbal and physical expressions, you can listen much more effectively when you attend to and accurately interpret the speaker’s body language.

Here’s what we’ve achieved so far in the Become a Listening Master Series (to start on the Listening Mastery path, check out the links below):

  1. Intend to Listen
  2. Listen for Understanding

Today, you will take Step 3 by learning how to Read the Speaker. Reading the speaker means paying attention to not only the literal words but also the speaker’s body language. In Step 2: Listen for Understanding, you learned about the importance of paying attention to nonverbal signals. Now, we are going learn how to model, interpret, and respond to common nonverbals:

  1. Start at Home Base. As a listener, you should begin with and return to Home Base. Sit (or stand) in a relaxed upright posture facing the speaker. Allow your face to rest in a slight smile as you gaze at the speaker’s face. This listening stance invites the speaker (and you) to trust your master listener qualities – openness, curiosity, warmth, and calmness. When in doubt, return to Home Base.
  2. Mirror the speaker. Just like a mother naturally mimics her baby, we tend to reflect the other person’s physical expressions when we want to bond with them. As a general rule, echo the speaker’s rate of speech, volume of speaking, body position, etc. However, if the speaker seems upset, return to Home Base and/or pause the conversation to allow the speaker to calm down.
  3. Respect distance. If the speaker seeks distance from you (by choosing a faraway seat, leaning away, pointing their body towards the exit, placing an object between the two of you, crossing arms in front of their chest, etc.), they are indicating where they want boundaries. Honor their wishes by not moving closer.
  4. Notice mismatches. A mismatch happens when the speaker’s words and body language don’t seem to match up. Is the speaker laughing, but their eyes look sad? Are the words nonchalant but the muscles look tight with fear or anger? These mixed signals are usually a sign that a nerve has been hit. In this sensitive moment, show that you want to understand better by neutrally noting the behavior and asking for clarification. For example, “I’m noticing that your voice sounds really tight. Would you like to tell me about what’s going on for you right now?”
  5. Consider cultural differences. We are usually pretty good at reading nonverbal signals if we share a similar cultural background with the speaker. If this is not the case, be aware that many of your assumptions may be off. When in doubt, ask the speaker “What does that mean for you?” or “Can you please tell me what’s going on?”
  6. When in doubt, ask. We aren’t mind-readers and trying to be can lead to frustration and misunderstanding. When in doubt, ask the speaker what’s going on. To better understand the speaker’s meaning, use inquiries like “Tell me more.” or “Please tell me what that means for you.” This keeps the emphasis on listening to the speaker rather than guessing what they mean.

Try these steps when listening to someone today, then talk with someone about the experience. Do the same thing tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that…you get the idea. The more you practice these skills and the more you talk about them with others, the more successful you will be in growing into a life-long Learning Master!