What body language cue shows that you are listening?

Asked by Anonymous

Body language refers to nonverbal “signals” communicating messages to others. Facial expressions and larger body movements make up a large part of daily communication and convey data to others. The eyes, mouth, hands, feet, legs, arms, posture, and distance between you and the person you’re conversing with are all factors looked to in determining what the body’s language may be trying to convey.

The first clue that you are listening is that you tend to gaze into the other person's eyes as they’re talking. Making eye contact can indicate interest and attention focused on the other person. Overly intense, prolonged eye contact may seem threatening, however. Pay attention to your mouth when you’re listening. Tightening your lips can often mean that you’re distrusting or disapproving of what you hear, as do downturned lips.

When it comes to arms and legs, crossing them can mean different things. Crossing your arms across your chest may indicate discomfort or defensiveness. Crossing your legs away from another person may communicate dislike or distaste toward the individual, while crossing your legs toward them is thought to indicate the opposite. Hands clasped behind the back may communicate feeling bored, and if you want to communicate interested listening, it probably isn’t a good idea. Tapping and fidgeting with hands, feet, or fingers can be interpreted as boredom or impatience, which isn’t a good combination when you’re listening to someone.

Posture indications helpful in listening are remaining open, not covering the torso, and having the arms relaxed so that the body appears open. This is thought to convey openness, willingness, and friendliness toward the other person. Leaning in or toward the speaker typically indicates interest and attention in what they’re saying, while leaning back and slouching may indicate disinterest. Personal space is another factor that may be looked to. The closer we stand to someone, the closer the relationship is usually interpreted as being.

Debates surrounding body language are ongoing. Some researchers have found that relying on body language or trying to “read” it can be unreliable. Others propose that reading body language can be learned and set out to refine the skill. People in business or who want to communicate effectively may study both understanding body language and how to use it to underscore what they may say verbally and hope to increase communication outcomes.

In short:

  • Lean forward, and base distance on the level of relationship you have
  • Make eye contact, but keep it non-threatening
  • Avoiding tapping or fidgeting
  • Indicate openness by avoiding crossing your arms
  • Indicate interest in a person by crossing legs towards them
  • Keep your lips turned up, and avoid biting or frowning unless appropriate as a response to something being said

Understanding body language can help support your efforts at both understanding others and communicating with them yourself. Context is important; body language doesn’t stand alone. Paying attention to verbal cues, the setting or situation, and body language together gives a clearer picture.

(MS., CMHC., NCC.)