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Listening Skills: Avoiding Unhelpful Body Language

March 18, 2012 by Dr. Jon Warner in Listening

Negative body language can significantly inhibit a speaker who is trying to get a message across to you. This might include poor eye-contact, slumped body-posture, strange facial expressions, shuffling feet, playing with objects (pens, pencils, paper-clips etc.), fiddling with hair or clothing and many other unhelpful body language cues. Positive body language, on the other hand, such as upright body posture, appropriate eye-contact, friendly facial expressions (including the occasional smile), nodding now and then, sitting relatively still without fidgeting etc., all help to show that you are interested in listening and help the speaker to get his or her message across more readily. In other words, these positive body language signals demonstrate you are listening at a physical level through your body language.

All of the above more positive action helps to build empathy with a speaker. Put another way, most people would prefer to be listened to by a person who is warm and attentive than someone who is cold and distant. Any good listener therefore needs to have a positive and accepting attitude to what is being said (which starts with how he or she pays attention in the first place but builds from there). So, listeners need to show that they are relating to what is being said. They show sensitivity by indicating that they accept the other person’s standpoint, even if they may not agree with it.

By trying to understand and empathize with what the speaker is saying at the level he or she has expressed it and by showing that you understand and accept the speaker’s feelings and experience, you will be able to encourage people to open up their experiences to you more fully.

One other important factor in effective listening is being sensitive to your own reactions throughout the conversation (and making sure that you focus fully on understanding the speaker’s message). You should therefore ask yourself: are you being indifferent?, are you being impatient?, are you switching off to difficult topics? Are you reacting to emotional words that have a particular meaning for you? has your pulse rate or breathing rate increased? This means that we should ideally keep our own emotions under control so that we can focus on understanding the speaker’s thoughts and feelings. The speaker may express his or her feelings verbally and directly or indirectly through his/her tone of voice or describing a situation. Your response as a listener will give the speaker an idea of your level of understanding of the speaker’s inner feelings and experience of a situation.

The featured video clip is drawn from the ReadyToManage, Rapid Skill Builder Listening Skills Video Vignette Set.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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