“Are you busy? Do you need to go do something?” My sister asked me, pausing in the middle of her story.
“No, why?” I asked.
“You have your hand on the doorknob and you keep looking at the clock.”
Oh, I thought
Guilt settled in my stomach quickly because that wasn’t the first time we’d had that conversation. I knew what would happen next: she would (rightfully) become angry with me and refuse to finish her story because I “clearly have more important things to do.”
It had become such a common discussion, I knew something had to change.
We’ve all done it — subconsciously, at least. Someone starts talking to you just as you’re about to do something, and you signal to them that you don’t want to hear what they have to say without actually saying it.
- You look at the clock.
- You turn your body away from them.
- You open the door slowly as they speak.
- You shake your leg impatiently.
- You look down or away.
We act that way because we believe we’re in a hurry — that if we don’t start that task or project in the next five minutes, the world is going to end. Listening to someone speak is just a waste of our time.
Think about that for a moment: we’re so obsessed with work that we don’t let ourselves focus on short conversations with people we love.
It’s no wonder my sister gets angry. I’m not showing that I respect her. I’m showing her that when it comes to my work and her, my work is more important.
If you want to show someone you care about them, listen. Active listening is about more than just hearing. You need to listen with your body, too. Here’s how.
1. Fully Face the Speaker
In her Creative Live class The Power of Body Language, Vanessa Van Edwards suggests that you fully face the person who’s talking to you to signal that you’re paying attention. Your feet need to be pointing toward the speaker.
Looking at someone is not enough. You can’t just turn your head and keep your torso turned away. This gives the idea that you’re not giving them your full attention.
Envision talking to someone whose body is facing the door versus someone who’s facing you completely. Already, you can feel the effect that would have on you as the speaker. It would encourage you to continue and would make you feel truly listened to.
To take it a step further, keep your body open by ensuring you don’t cross your arms or legs. Psychology Today wrote that doing so creates “a psychological and physical barrier.”
2. Maintain Eye Contact (But Not the Whole Time)
When someone speaks to you, it’s important to maintain eye contact since this shows that you’re listening and paying attention.
Lots of people feel uncomfortable making eye contact. However, Michigan University offers great tips to make it less awkward for you while still showing you’re a great listener:
- Make eye contact 70% of the time
- Maintain eye contact for four to five seconds before slowly looking away
- Don’t dart your eyes or look down — stick to sideways glances
- You can also get away with looking at an eyebrow or the space between their eyes and mouth
Whatever you do, refrain from looking at anything that says you want to escape, such as the clock, the door, or your phone. This makes you look like you’re in a hurry and uninterested.
3. Stay Calm, Stay Put
My dad has a habit of slowly walking away when someone talks to him. Out the door, up the stairs. “Where are you going?” we ask him, confused and offended. It always makes my sisters and I feel unworthy of being listened to.
He always sheepishly laughs and apologizes. But by then, we hurry our story, unwilling to continue the conversation.
Unless you have a scheduled meeting or phone call, it’s likely that you’re not actually in a hurry. You’re just impatient, and there’s a difference. I’m not suggesting you stand like a robot — we’re naturally fidgety — but don’t walk away no matter how discreet you think you’re being.
4. Use Your Head
There are a few ways to use head movements as a show that you’re listening. Nodding is the most obvious way. Study Finds shares that nodding makes you more likable and easier to talk to you. It encourages the speaker to keep talking, signals that you’re paying attention, and makes them feel accepted, according to Training Connection.
They also share that you can:
- Tilt your head to the side to show you’re thoughtful
- Lean your head and torso forward to show you’re interested
- Face forward to give your full attention (as we talked about)
Using your head — and really all the other types of body language — isn’t just about you. It’s about making the speaker feel heard and cared for.
There’s something important that took me a while to understand: whatever task you need to get to will still be there in five minutes. It’ll even be there in fifteen.
We live in a fast-paced society that encourages you to run, run, run. In a world full of hares, be a tortoise. You can sit and talk to someone. You can prioritize the people you love over your goals and work.
When you talk to someone, put work out of your mind. The reality is whichever task you’re going to work on probably won’t take you that long anyway. Whether you start at 4:00 or 4:30 doesn’t matter — you’re still going to get those two hours in.
Don’t ruin your relationships just because you’re in a hurry. Be present, and pay attention when everyone else is looking at their phones.
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