The Look Of Listening

by Stephen Boyd | September 30, 2003

Have you ever had a person in the middle a conversation say to you, "I can tell this is a bad time for you. I’ll come back later"? You are surprised because you are listening closely to what the person is saying. Yet obviously you do not look like it to the person who is talking.

In my college listening class, one of the exercises involves videotaping students as they listen. When I play the tape back to them, some are astonished as to how they look as they are listening. "I can’t believe I look like that when I’m listening," is a common response. It seems clear there are times when we may be listening well but we don’t show it to the person who is talking to us.

This is especially true when we first meet with a client. There are certain actions we need to take to show the talker we really are listening.

First, make eye contact with the client. Certainly you don’t want to get into a staring contest, but look into his/her eyes as you are listening. Eye contact is a mental handshake with the person.

Look pleasant as you are listening. Avoid the furrowed brow unless you are about to ask a question on what he or she said. Nod your head at times to indicate you are tuned in with what is being said. Sometimes a look of recognition will tell the speaker that what the person said is just what you needed to know. Showing the "light bulb" going on is an encouragement to the talker to give you more information.

Don’t be doing other things when listening. This is hard to avoid since so many different things demand our attention. If you keep writing, playing with objects on your desk, or looking elsewhere in the room, the talker understands that what he/she is saying is not completely captivating. I had a boss who would read his mail when I was in his office talking to him. This certainly kept our conversations short because I felt he really wasn’t interested in what I was saying. Avoid receiving telephone calls when someone is talking to you. If you are writing, make it clear that you are taking a note on what the talker is saying. Avoid looking at the computer screen when you are listening. Don’t move things around on your desk. Do not doodle. Act as though the only important thing in the world to you at that moment is listening to what the person is telling you. Stay in the person’s comfort level of space which in our culture is between four and seven feet.

Eliminate barriers between you and the speaker. If you have a choice, sit where your desk is not between you and the talker. Move adjacent to her or him if you are at a table. Avoid bouquets or plants between you and the talker. Sit where you are at the same level as the person you are listening to. If he stands, you stand; if she sits, you sit. Don’t make the speaker sit in a straight chair while you sit on a sofa.

You may think you listen best with your eyes closed or slumping down in your chair, but it does not look that way to the talker. Listening is not just an intellectual experience where information goes from one mind to another. Listening is also visual. To be courteous to the person speaking, you must show that you are listening.

About the Author

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. See additional articles and resources at To book Steve, call 800-727-6520 or email him through his website.

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