Listening Beyond Your Ears: How To Listen With Your Whole Body

I believe that listening is a learnable skill. A lot of leaders will be first to raise their hand if asked whether listening is an essential part of good leadership qualities. However, many do not understand what it takes to be a great listener. They assumed that listening is just about letting the other person talk all they want before they respond. The truth is that, listening requires more than that. In this post, I will unpack some of the principles that I applied to grow in my listening skills.

I used to believe that listening comes to me rather naturally. I have a reactive personality and thus I tend to listen more than I talk. I have learned, a few years ago, that hearing and listening is an altogether different thing and that just because I am hearing information, it does not mean that I fully comprehend its content. As a result, I began to devour books and articles on effective communication as well as listening skills.

A lot of schools teach reading comprehension but never really teach listening comprehension, although listening is one of the most important skills to master at. After coming to that realization, I began to practice good listening principles and observe from great listeners. I discovered some of my terrible listening habits that took a long time to correct. Eventually, I came up with some sound principles that I use, until today to improve my listening skills. I hope they will be helpful for your leadership needs.

A few weeks ago, I watched a great demonstration by Evelyn Glennie over at TED: How to Truly Listen. Her story and also her message inspired me so greatly that I decided to write about it in this post. In a nutshell, this is her message: When you listen, don’t listen only with your ears. You use your ears to hear, but you can use your entire self to listen. For example: when you receive information through your ears, you don’t really receive the message entirely, because you only hear sound waves. Your brain received the sound waves, which hit your eardrums, as electrical signals, which gets sent to the brain, which is then processed to become the information that you can understand. Your brain, then, is also heavily involved in the process of listening.

How do you listen with your whole body then?

1. Maintain eye contact

I have found that although it seems rather simple and easy to do, maintaining eye contact is crucial while listening. Eye contact signifies interest in the speaker. Allow me to illustrate. I love snowboarding. Good snowboarding coaches will tell you that you must look where you’re going, because your body will unconsciously point / lean towards the direction you are looking at. I believe the same principle applies when listening. If you look at the speaker in the eye, you are projecting your interest and your energy into the person. It makes them feel important. Furthermore, it sends an unspoken message that they are the most important person in the world at the moment. Avoid making excessive eye contact though, as some people may feel uncomfortable with it.

2. Animate your facial expression 

It is usually quite easy to figure out how interested someone is in you and what you are saying just by looking at his or her facial expression. Although it is not always an accurate indication, it can send a relatively clear message as to whether the listener is still “in” the conversation. Before I learn this principle, I found that people often asked me whether I was really listening. Such questions always caught me by surprise, because I surely was giving them my full attention! Apparently, because of my neutral facial expression, they were unable to guess what I think. I thus began to practice adjusting my facial expression. A good rule of thumb is that you should try to mimic the speaker’s expression. If they smiled, smile back. If they frown, frown with them. If they were laughing, laugh with them. This technique comes with an added bonus for the speaker as it gave them the confidence to continue their story.

3. Your body language says a lot even though you are not talking

Even though you are not saying anything, your body language inadvertently says a lot about your current state of mind. It subtly says a lot about your opinion of the person you are conversing with. Some research said that about 55% of communication is body language. If body language is so important, why don’t you use it more? The next time you meet someone, ask yourselves these questions:

  • Are you facing the speaker?
  • Do you lean forward slightly?
  • Do you nod occasionally?
  • Do you acknowledge your understanding with some timely response like “ah”s, or “yes” or “I see”?
  • Where are your hands? Are you spending more time on your mobile phone or do you give 100% full attention to the speaker and show them that you value them and what they have to say?

4. Be interested in them and their interest.

Have you ever heard someone talked about his or her holiday in a certain country? As they were telling you about their experience near a certain landmark that you have visited previously. Unconsciously, you find yourself suddenly saying, “I know that place. I did this and that and so on and so on…” As I pondered back to my own experience, I am ashamed to admit how terrible a listener I had been.

Are you truly interested in listening to the person? Do you really care about the speaker? I found that I needed to hold myself back in plenty of occasions due to a bad habit of mine. , Even though I did all three of the above and applied the principles vigorously, I often interrupted the speaker. I immediately launched into what I wanted to say before he finished. I am not sure why, but perhaps it is due to the own insecurity. I am afraid of forgetting what I wanted to say. Or perhaps I found the topic outside of my range of interest. What I fail to notice was that I have inadvertently shifted the attention to my story. For the next few years, I did everything I could to learn to be interested in the other person’s interest. That made me a better listener and it increased my ‘likeable’ factor too.

5. Put a stop to your brain’s answering machine.

This last principle is one that I have often been so guilty on. I found myself crafting answers in my mind even before the other person finished speaking. This is the point where I often kicked myself for not being attentive enough. The Bible says in Proverbs 18:13:

“Answering before listening is both stupid and rude.”

I have talked to people from various walks of life to find that they too, are guilty of this bad habit. Perhaps the listener wanted to make himself look good by giving the right answer before the speaker finished speaking. I have to admit, this was my hidden motivation. I have since learned to remember that my focus should not be on myself, but to the person I am conversing with. I need to remember the Golden Rule of “Treat others the way you want others to treat you.” If I want them to value my time, and me I need to do the same.

As a leader, often we may be required to make speeches or share some words of encouragement or motivation for our followers. However, much more valuable than what we have to say, are employee satisfaction and the determination to show that we truly care for their well being. Spend time listening to your staff and during the course of the conversation; show them that they are important by listening to their stories and their struggles. When I first started leading a cell group I thought that the prime responsibility of a leader is to say good things all the time. I never listened and as a result, people’s morale is low and nobody is growing. However, when I spent time listening to my group member’s opinion and struggles, I began to see people opening up. They were excited for every weekly gathering. I began to see my influence beginning to grow. As I applied these principles I find it easier to understand people. Is all these effort worth it? Absolutely! Listening is hard work and requires concentration, but the reward goes leaps and bounds beyond my expectations.

Question: What about you? What are your tips to become good listener? How have becoming a good listener helped you in your leadership capacity? Join the discussion below.

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