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Think of the act of listening to another person as a form of passive communication. We send messages by the way we listen. The more sensitive the topic, the more the speaker will monitor how it’s being received. In particular, they’ll be on the lookout for any sign that we’re judging them critically.
If I feel someone will judge me harshly for what I’m about to say, I’m likely to approach them defensively. Or to judge them harshly in return. Either way, I’m less open to their response. Which frankly defeats the whole idea of communicating.
How do you show someone you’re open to what they say?
Some common tips:
- Maintain frequent eye contact. However, avoid the “lizard-like stare of death.”
- Sit with an open posture– relaxed, facing the speaker, perhaps leaning in a bit (but no crowding).
- Use gestures that convey receptiveness— nodding, for instance. Avoid head-bobbing, however. That suggests you’re in a hurry and they should shut up.
- Smile every so often in an encouraging way. Avoid frowns and grimaces that signal dislike for what you’ve heard. That’s a sure conversation-stopper.
- Don’t cross your arms protectively in front of your torso, the way Donald Trump does, or tightly cross your legs. Both indicate disapproval. You may not mean it that way, but that’s how it’s interpreted.
- Do not yawn. Or stare longingly out the window as if hoping for the bell to ring. These are bad habits left over from elementary school. You’d be amazed how often they show up in adulthood.
Is it OK to interrupt if I have something to say?
Interrupting generally interferes with communication. Instead, try interacting. You might request clarification (“What did you mean when you said…”) or confirmation (“Let me see if I understood this…).
Summarizing is a useful way to speed things up if necessary. “I think I get it. You’re frustrated that Bob won’t discuss finances.” This can help remedy the common problem of a speaker with a tendency to overexplain things.
Above all, avoid interrupting with a judgment, either on what someone has said, or on the speaker themselves. Besides, you may lack some pertinent info. Wait and see if it emerges.
What if I feel a desire to argue?
People often do, especially when the topic is sensitive. Best to resist the impulse. Arguing activates people’s natural defenses and brings communication to a halt. Oh, words may continue to flow, but both sides are now focused more on winning the argument than resolving any differences they may have.
Remember: your turn will come. Wait for it. If you interrupt, you give the other person permission to interrupt you in return.
More later, on various ways to establish good communication with someone who’s not all that open to it.