How Do People Know You’re Listening?

So how do people know you’re listening? They need evidence. When communicating face-to-face, you give many nonverbal cues that you’re listening. Following are some do’s and don’ts of listening, as well as some other strategies you can use.

The Do’s of Listening

First, the most important sign of listening has nothing to do with your ears, but with your eyes! Great eye contact is a must but changes your eye width once in a while to show your responsiveness. Widen your eyes in wonder or surprise when fascinating new information is offered (this information may only be fascinating to the speaker). You may have a background that makes establishing eye contact difficult or uncomfortable for you. You must learn to maintain relaxed, attentive eye contact. Eye contact may be broken briefly so as not to devolve into a vacant stare, but some eye contact should be given throughout the conversation.

Second, make listening noises. Do you know the sounds that a doctor makes as he examines you closely or takes a thorough health history? Ah, uh-huh, and mmm. These sounds are called subvocal. Subvocal are a powerful secret weapon in demonstrating that you’re a responsive and caring listener. You can also use short phrases or words such as “oh,” “really?,” and “interesting” to show that you’re listening (use these sparingly).


Subvocal are sounds you make that let the speaker know you’re alert and engaged without your having to interrupt her to ask questions or interject your own comments.

Paraphrasing and repeating are techniques that also offer your listener proof that you’re listening closely. After you’re sure your partner has finished her comments and it’s your turn to respond, be sure to repeat a phrase she has just said or paraphrase what you think you heard her say. People love to hear their own words and comments coming back to them; it is very flattering to them to know you listened so closely and can repeat to them what they just said. For example, if your neighbor spends five minutes telling you about a new car she just bought, which she describes as an SUV that gets unusually great gas mileage and seats six people, you could say, “I can’t believe you get that kind of mileage with an SUV that seats six.” Those words are proof positive that you listened to every detail. Isn’t that response so much more gratifying than the generic “That’s great”?

Another sign that you’re listening is your body language, particularly your facial expressions. Beyond eye contact, lively and interested facial expressions reflect great interest in the speaker’s words. Sometimes when we’re listening to our face goes into “neutral,” giving us a bored expression. This neutral expression could be mistakenly viewed as hostility or negativism, even if you’ve been interested and listening. Be aware that your face is sending a message at all times, even when you aren’t talking.

 And if you are gathering a great deal of information, be sure to take notes to capture facts and further demonstrate that you’re paying close attention. If you have trouble paying attention, write down a key word here and there as your partner speaks. It helps you focus.

Finally, if you’re really listening, you’ll do two things: keep your remarks brief and ask questions. When your remarks are brief, you give the floor to your partner and you spend more time listening. Sometimes your remarks can be so brief that you don’t even need to speak in complete sentences. And asking questions is your way of giving up the spotlight and asking your partner to talk more while you play the role of the attentive listener. People are so used to being interrupted or rushed through their explanations that when someone asks a question, they’re really knocked out!

Communication Tip

 Asking a question says to conversation partners, “You are so interesting and what you’re saying is so important that I want to know even more.” People will feel that you’re a brilliant conversationalist when you’ve actually contributed very little. Their own words sound golden to them.

The Don’ts of Listening

Now that you know the do’s, consider some of the don’ts of listening.

Don’t fiddle with pen or papers, or use any distracting gestures while you’re listening. You may feel impatient but hide it. Don’t jiggle your foot or your loose change. Don’t gesture constantly. When energy pours out of you like this, you appear to be impatient and not listening. Not only will your actions keep your receiver from concentrating on your response, but they may send a message that you are bored or annoyed. Maintain your composure and keep hand and body motions under control.

Don’t relate everything to yourself. Do you constantly say things like, “The same thing happened to me one time …” or “That’s just like my old boss, he …”? When you make these types of statements, you’re really finding ways to steer the conversation away from your partner and back to your favorite subject—you. Everyone does this occasionally—the operative word being occasionally. Don’t abuse.

Don’t constantly check your phone or another electronic device. This breaks eye contact and says to your partner that she is of lower priority than anyone who is reaching out to you electronically. Just as you would never keep your phone turned on during a job interview, do not power on your phone during any conversation.

Don’t be guilty of clipping. When your words follow closely on the heels of the last syllable of your partner, she feels “clipped.” You would probably never actually interrupt. You may, however, wait with great patience until the last syllable is out of the other person’s mouth and then jump in with your pent-up comment. You are like a dam bursting as you pour out the thoughts that have gone through your mind as your partner talks.

Don’t abruptly change topics when someone is talking to you. This is like leapfrogging from one lily pad to the next. It shows no interest on your part in the current conversation. At least make a responsive statement or two about your partner’s input. You can then try to link the current topic to the one you want to change to with a transitional statement.

Communication Tip

 Mark was guilty of topic-changing behavior, and it almost cost him his friendship with Elena. Elena was telling Mark about the new car she was purchasing. As Elena described the luxury features and the size of the engine, Mark’s mind wandered. Elena ended her description with, “The brakes have special sensors that balance the braking on all four tires to improve control.” Mark said, “By the way, what are the one-year CDs at the credit union paying?” His mind had skipped to auto financing and then on to his bank account. Elena was insulted.

Other Listening Strategies

In addition to the do’s and don’ts, other strategies can help you develop the people skills of a great listener.

Be sure to use the speaker’s name as frequently as comfortable, using a warm and friendly tone of voice. Whenever people approach or call, smile and greet them warmly. (Yes, the smile on the phone. People can “hear” a smile.) Also, practice the art of embracing interruptions. How you handle the unexpected can make relationships stronger or hurt them. And when the conversation is over, say thank you verbally and in the way you follow up. Send thank-you notes or emails to follow up on conversations. Call a few days later to see how a situation turned out.

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