How to listen empathetically. Challenge #2 — non-verbal communication!

How to listen empathetically. Challenge #2 — non-verbal communication!

(The third article of the four part series)

The first televised US presidential debate in September 1960 in which John F Kennedy squared off with Richard Nixon, has gone down in annals of politics as a reminder of the power of non verbal communication. Until then the presidential debates were either covered in the newspapers or the radio. The folks who listened in to this debate on the radio thought it was draw with many giving Nixon the edge, even as the folks, who watched it on TV were clear that Kennedy had won.

What we say is often as important as how we look saying it and what our body language conveys when we are conversing.

Our entire current surveillance tools at airports rely heavily on understanding and analysing people through their body language to identify threats. An interesting new documentary series on Netflix hosted by science journalist Latif Naseer, Connected : The Hidden Science of Everything, in its first episode focuses lens on surveillance. It looks at how much can be learnt by just watching/observing and how surveillance pervades our today’s world. From observing migratory patterns of small birds to predict hurricanes to profiling citizens through facial recognition software built by scraping millions of selfies and photos shared on social media.

Former FBI agent, Joe Navarro, seen as a global expert on body language and non verbal communications often quotes the statistic that 60 to 65 per cent of our communication is non verbal and we transmit information about ourselves all the time. Decoding body language then is an important aspect of establishing trust as well as really listening to what a person is saying.

Listening to non-verbal communication and observing has always been a part of us, from our hunter-gatherer times. Think of how we are able to read (listen) to almost all emotions without a single word being uttered; all by just reading expression and body language of the person. Here are a few examples:

Actors and performers are among those who understand the power of non verbal language and use it with such command that certain movies and scenes are almost seared into us. I still remember Al Pacino’s blazing performance towards the end of the movie ‘Scent of a Woman’, where he speaks on behalf of Chris O’Donnell, who does not snitch on his friends and is targeted by the authorities of an elite school. Or, the silent movie ‘Pushpak’, starring Kamal Hassan and Amala, about love that needs no language.

Now, there are many things at work to make these movies scenes stand out – the script, the story, the music etc. But finally, it comes to the actors and their delivery. The performances that we remember are the ones, where they have been able to powerfully communicate non-verbally, through their body and paralinguistic (tonal modulations).

Each one of us is wired to read and listen to non-verbal communication, but we tend to do it only where are focusing on it. E.g. gauging the mood/ intention/ the motive of a person by the way a message has been written. Or reading emotions on people’s faces.

Otherwise, we often ignore these signals, especially during conversations. Take for example, anger. Most of us know that it is a secondary emotion, coming out of fear or depression or sadness but we still latch on the emotion of anger in a conversation. We don’t allow ourselves to really listen to where the anger is coming from. Or if our kids are pursing the lips, we know something is not right.

Though we are not experts in this area, we have been listening to people for over 15 years. And, I am sharing some of our techniques from a practitioner’s point of view.

Body language — this covers three areas.

  1. Our overall behaviour — are we fidgeting, darting glances at our phones & watches or are we giving the person our undivided attention (phone on airplane or silent mode)? Taking notes, asking and clarifying. (While at the same time, we are also observing whether the opposite individual too is exhibiting these)
  2. Our Eyes
    Are we making eye contact, to show our interest?
    Are we blocking our eyes? Could be our finger to the eyes trying to hide it or maybe looking a bit away or closing the eyes for a moment too long (not for thinking). Blocking eyes indicate that we have something to hide. Same goes for the person we are speaking to.
    Are we arching our eyebrows or pinching our eyebrows to listen? This gives a signal that we are not liking what we are listening to or getting ready for an argument or a bit circumspect of what the person is saying.
  3. Our overall face and body
    How are we listening
    ? Are we leaning in or Reclining back or sinking into the seat? The moment we lean in, it creates the ‘trust space’ and a ‘listening bubble’.
    Are we having a dead pan face or smiling?
    Are we tilting our heads to listen? Tilting indicates a genuine interest and a certain warmth as opposed to listening with a straight neck.
  4. Are we mirroring the other person, copying some of their non-verbal actions? These are not orchestrated but tend to happen naturally. E.g. if they are sitting in a certain way, use their hands in a certain way, playing back some of the words etc.

The second is Paralinguistics – the way we sound to others, our volume, pitch and speed rate of the speech. These are affected by our emotions and alters the perception of the intended message.

The third is the behaviour of the person we are speaking to — where they sit, who they group with, who they avoid. Gives a good indication of the mindset of the speaker.

And finally, the environment the person wants us to see — communication of their spaces and objects (what they want us to see and feel about themselves)

One thing to keep in mind is that finally, these are just techniques. We need to come from a space of authenticity and interest in listening to what the person is saying. For its not just us, who is observing and listening but also the other person. And from our experience I can say, people instinctively know if they are being listened to. And they shut down even if they see a hint of insincerity.

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