Active listening is a discipline. It is critical to effective communication—and it’s what influential leaders do. Non-verbal communication is just one element of active listening but an important one. Just as auditory listening may be passive or active, it’s just as true for non-verbal listening. The more passive form is if you just happen to notice someone’s actions, or they happen to notice yours.
You walk in a colleague’s office. She is standing, gazing out her window. Staring off into the distance, hands stuck deep in her pockets. Her head picks up ever so slightly at the sound of someone entering her office. She turns slowly, nods just a bit and sits down. A whole lotta’ non-verbal communication going on. You ask, what’s wrong?
That’s a basic form of passive listening to non-verbal communication. You usually can’t help but notice. But a disciplined communicator is always watching.
Non-verbal communication is valuable, and we do it often. Let’s take the discussion partially out of the realm of the human for just a moment. If you have a pet, you more than likely communicate silently much of the time. Dog trainers teach owners to use hand signals to indicate the command, stay. (Yes, usually accompanied by a verbal command, but it’s the non-verbal action that puts the exclamation point on the sentence.) Look at your cat. She freezes, stares, crouches. What’s she telling you? You look for the mouse. A dog stops, raises one foreleg, tail rigid, parallel to the ground. She stares straight ahead. You look. Two-way communication and not a word is spoken.
Back to business. What gets communicated non-verbally may be what needs to be said, but can’t. “I disagree,” is sometimes not seen as an option. As an effective listener, if you are open to hearing the non-verbal form of “I disagree,” you may be able to make a more effective decision. Either the “I disagree” colleague has more to tell you; or, conversely, the “I disagree” person does not have enough information to carry out the assignment. Or, maybe it is a little of both. After all, it takes two to disagree. Or more. Add one more person to the conversation and the elements of agreement can go from a simple two-way, to a six-way set of communications that need to be understood.
You Agree? Then What’s That Look on Your Face?
Picture a major electronics manufacturer launching a new model smartphone. Let’s say it’s called Smartphone 4. A story begins to emerge from your Facebook page and is picked up by the national media about several customers and high-tech reviewers all complaining about having dropped calls because the new model’s antenna seems to have a problem.
In the conference room sits the CEO, the VP of public relations, and the CFO, meeting over what to do. The VP and CFO disagree with the CEO’s recommended approach—each with a different reason and suggestion on how to proceed. They pause, look at one another and shift in their seats, but then voice their agreement with the CEO. The CEO is impatient and distracted; he’s just made a public appearance to launch the new smartphone and is reluctant to reverse the momentum. What’s more, he’s going into the hospital next week to treat a chronic illness. Although both the VP and CFO verbally agree with the CEO, their non-verbal response is just plain no. The CEO hears yes, but he’s not listening and not looking for the non-verbal cues. At the press conference the next day, the CEO is combative. It does not go well. The purchasing public is dismayed, and the press, blamed by the CEO for fanning the controversy, is even more critical.
Of course, some aspects of this hypothetical are real—others fabricated. We do know that Steve Jobs, Apple CEO, called a press conference on July 16, 2010, where he disputed reported problems with his company’s new iPhone 4. He blamed the media for blowing the reception issue out of proportion. Whether or not there had been internal agreement on how to proceed, and whether the voices at the table had been heard, may never be known. Yet, it is a plausible scenario that illustrates how communication may or may not occur.
Quiet Down and Listen Up
There are two broad elements to consider about effective non-verbal communication:
- How do you employ non-verbal communication to better communicate?
- How do you use active listening to hear non-verbal communication?
The first question has less to do with listening, and more to do with acting, so we will save it for a future discussion. The second question comes down to being aware that there is much to be gained through non-verbal communication, and allowing one’s self to take advantage of that awareness.
Non-verbal communication provides valuable feedback that can provide support, or contra-indicate. But you have to listen to get it. The examples above have primarily to do with colleagues, but the application of listening to non-verbal cues of clients or prospective clients may be even more consequential.
What You Can Do
Open the door without saying a word: Allow for silence and watch what happens.
Pay attention to signals: Expert card players know what to watch for when someone is bluffing, or has an exceptional hand. Look for signs. Blushing, flushing, cracked voice, fluttering eyelids, posture, facial expressions.
Use complimentary non-verbal expressions: Does a nod from you get a reciprocal nod back, or an icy stare? A smile for a smile? Use your own non-verbal communication to elicit a non-verbal response.
Test and confirm: As you notice non-verbal cues, you can test them against what’s been said. You see downcast, averted eyes. Your next question: Are you sure you agree?
Check with others: Check on a non-verbal cue’s meaning with someone else present in the room—either while it is occurring, or later if necessary, to help someone save face.
And talk, you are listening on your feet: You notice something and restate in response to what you think you heard from a non-verbal cue. Even as you are talking, stay attentive and watch and see if the non-verbal cues show any change. You are not talking to convince. You are talking to be convinced that your audience is still with you.