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Being a good listener is one of the top two qualities that frontline employees usually list for a good supervisor and leader. So how does an employee know that we are listening? One of the first ways we can let people know that we are listening is with our body language. The most influential piece of any message that we send to someone is the nonverbal part. Nonverbal communication is our facial expression, tone of voice, and body language.

The appearance of listening is as important as actually listening. There are a few things that we can do to make sure we look like we are listening. The first is to squarely face the person talking – shoulders and hips should face the person. We can also lean forward a bit if we are sitting and sit up straight. It’s very important to maintain eye contact. We want to look at the person while he or she is talking. Eye contact can feel a little intense if you aren’t used to it, but we want to maintain eye contact as often and for as long as we can.

There are several body positions that do not give the impression that one is listening for understanding. One is leaning back in a chair with legs crossed and hands behind the head. It’s a control posture; it tells the other person that you are more important and that you might take what they say into consideration. Another position is crossing your arms across your chest. This posture is defensive and tells people that you are guarding against anything that they have to say. Facial expression also has a huge impact. Frowning or looking bored will make a person nervous. It’s best to look friendly and then show reactions to what’s being said. If it’s funny, smile! If it’s serious, look serious.

If our nonverbal message does not match our verbal message, the people we are talking with will go with the nonverbal message every time. If I say the words, “You are doing a good job,” but I roll my eyes, cross my arms, and use a sarcastic tone, the message that you take away is, “I am not doing a good job.” Even though I said you were doing a good job with my words, my body language and tone of voice let you know that I didn’t mean it. Nonverbal communication is powerful and always overrides verbal communication.

Looking like we are listening is important. However, more important is that we actually are paying attention to what is being said. We can be leaning forward and looking at a person and be thinking, “I think we’re out of peanut butter. Is that person still talking? I wonder what they’re saying.” Actual listening is the goal!

Supervisors often claim that they can listen while doing another task like checking email. First, we cannot fully listen for understanding if we are also concentrating on something else. Second, by not stopping all other activities and focusing on the person speaking, we are telling them that they aren’t as important as whatever it is we are doing. Employees complain that when they go into supervisors’ offices to tell them something, the supervisors never look up from their computers. They nod their heads and say, “Uh huh,” but do not fully listen for understanding.

If for some reason we can’t talk to someone when they initiate a conversation, we should tell them and ask if we can set up a time to talk later. We could say something like, “I really want to hear what you have to say, and I want to make sure that I can pay attention. Can we meet in 10 minutes, or can we set up a time?” Then they’ll indicate whether the conversation is urgent or not. If it’s not urgent, we can set up a time when we can give them our undivided attention.

In coaching, we talk about three listening levels. Think of the light of a flashlight as an indicator of where our attention is. In Listening Level 1, I have the flashlight pointing at myself. I am not listening to you at all. While you are talking, I’m thinking, “The right-front tire looks low, and we might be out of milk.” I’m only listening to the voice in my own head. At Listening Level 2, I have the flashlight trained on you, but it is a narrow and weak beam. I’m listening to the words but not paying attention to the situation or context of the words. Your body language may clearly show that you are upset, but I am not noticing that. At Listening Level 3, I have a big spotlight on you! I’m listening to your words, and I’m paying attention to your body language. I notice what emotions you are feeling by noticing your nonverbal communication. It’s not just the words, but the entire situation and your nonverbal communication that I’m focusing on at Listening Level 3.

In leadership workshops, participants take turns sharing something that’s important to them. While the speaker is talking, the listener practices good body language and listens for understanding. When the speaker has finished, the listener tells the speaker what he or she heard. Here’s the important part: if the speaker doesn’t feel that the listener has fully understood the point of the conversation, they start the process over and continue until the speaker is satisfied that the listener fully understands his or her point. It’s a valuable process to practice in everyday life to ensure that we really do understand what someone wants us to know.

When we listen for understanding, it is important to fully understand the other person’s perspective. However, listening for understanding does not mean that we have to agree with the person’s perspective or take his or her suggestions. We want to maintain a mindset that says, “There is a possibility that I might agree with you or that I might incorporate your perspective.” However, there is no obligation to agree at the end of the conversation. We can just say, “Hey, thank you. I appreciate you sharing your point of view, and I’m going to think about it.”

It’s also not necessary to ask for input all the time. Sometimes it can actually harm the relationship. For example, if we’re deciding on a policy and we know we’re going to do it a certain way, we don’t want to invite input on it. We shouldn’t lead people to believe that their input is valuable and can make a difference. If the decision has been made, we offer the rationale for the decision if that’s possible, but we don’t ask for any employee opinions.

Giving someone our full attention and listening attentively is a fabulous gift. It makes people feel like what they say is important and that they have value as a person. When someone feels truly listened to, they feel more positivity toward the person listening. As a result, the positivity of the relationship and the listener’s personal influence increase.

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