Posts tagged ‘body language’

Embracing 2015 As a Listener

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The funniest story I ever heard about listening is told about the real Marlboro Man. Remember that rugged cowboy from the old cigarette ads? He looked like a guy who would have few friends and live by himself in a remote cabin. Actually, as so often happens, what he looked like and what he truly was were two different things. He’d been happily married for decades, and he and his wife loved to throw parties. They had a yard strewn with comfortable furniture and tables and chairs and all kinds of outdoor grills. Well, it was the day of one of these parties and his wife looked at the sky and announced that since a storm was obviously coming he would have to lug everything into the barn. She was running into town for some last minute supplies. Now, either he didn’t listen, or he disagreed with her forecast, or he didn’t feel like moving furniture, but, for whatever reason, he didn’t move anything, everyone arrived, and five minutes after she got home the skies opened, and all the guests got drenched. She apparently laid into him in front of all their friends and railed at him for quite a bit in a real huff. According to the story, he stood still and silently took his verbal licking. When she finally stomped away, he turned to his friends and said, “Well, I guess I gave her a good listening to.”

You’ve probably given some folks a good listening to in your day, also. I know I have. I suppose you could rightfully call me a professional listener. Between my communication teacher background and my years as a therapist, I have a total of about fifty years of earning my living by listening. I think it has turned me into a neurotic listener. You know how people look out windows and clean their finger nails and close their eyes while they’re listening? Not me. Eye contact, folks, eye contact. I can’t even sit behind a pillar or a post in church or at a lecture. I have to be able to see the person who’s talking, and people to whom I’ve given good listenings over the years will attest that I don’t take my eyes off them.

Now there are a couple valid reasons for my rapt attention, although I’ll confess that reason number one is that I want whoever is talking to KNOW I’m listening. It’s a sign of respect. One of the major ways we are certain someone is listening is if they are watching us. Plus, I suffered with every poor speech student who thought he was going to die if I made him stand up in front of the class and give a speech. Remember public speaking is right up there with snakes, spiders and plane rides in most people’s top ten fears. So, to encourage them, I’d look and listen and smile and nod. It’s a hard habit to break. Even the cat has me trained to be quite responsive when she meows.

But the other much better reason for looking at people when they speak comes from a statistic I taught over and over and over. Words account for only 7% of the total meaning of communication. Fifty-five percent of the meaning we get from communicating comes from body language. Thirty-eight percent comes from “para-verbal” communication. So when we listen only to someone’s words, as in a text message or an email, we are missing the vast majority of the meaning of that communication. (I also taught students that they needed to cite their sources if they wanted to be believed. Those statistics come from the work of Albert Mehrabian. I know you don’t care and probably believed me anyhow. I couldn’t help myself.)

Now, we all know what body language is, right? Some people talk with their hands, some people lean in, some people don’t make eye contact (the sign of a liar?) and some people twirl their hair (a self-conscious flirt?) or stroke their chins (a pompous know-it-all?) the whole time they’re talking. I remember a therapy session where a husband was asking his wife about her relationship with another man. She replied rather hotly, “We’re just friends!” She threw her hands up in the air in disgust, and then when she brought her hands back down she pulled them together and intertwined all ten fingers. It might have been just a coincidence, but I never thought so. It turned out she and her “friend” were intertwining a lot more than their ten fingers. Take heed. We give ourselves away with our body language because body language is almost entirely unconscious.
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Para-verbal communication is less well-known. It’s the “stuff” that goes with the verbal communication, like volume, grammar, dialect, accents, and tone of voice. Is the speaker sarcastic, apologetic, sexual, or dead-pan? How we say what we say comprises the rather large percentage of communication that is para-verbal. Again, think about texts and the reason we have to add “LOL” after we say something. The person receiving our message can’t tell we’re teasing because they can’t hear our voice. For an example, let’s use the phrase, “Nice job.” Do you mean I really did a good job or are you mocking me or berating me? If I heard you say the words, I could tell. A text message is missing the clues to meaning that I’d get from your voice. This is a portion of the reason that there are so many misunderstandings when we text.

Understanding (or being reminded) of this communication research helps us figure out how to listen effectively. In fact, it was no accident that one of the classes I taught was called “Effective Oral Communication.” Effective communication is not only about talking but also, and fundamentally, about listening. We could hear very clearly the words someone said, understand them completely, and still possess less than 10% of the total message. Listening with our ears is not sufficient. We need to listen with our eyes.

Our eyes are listening all the time. We listen to what the sky tells us with our eyes, as did the wife of the Marlboro man. We listen to someone’s pain or pleasure when we see them crying or grinning. We listen with our eyes when we see the way they enhance their message with their body language, in showing us how big the fish was, or with their para-verbal communication when they tell us, drolly and dryly, “She is one piece of work.”

But thorough listening doesn’t stop with our ears and our eyes. We listen with all our senses. I remember hearing years ago that within three seconds of meeting a potential mate we could tell if they were going to be in our candidate pool. You know how? Smell. And I’m sure each of you has gotten a clear message from someone through touch. Was the handshake warm and friendly? Did the other person hold onto your hand too long (creepy and inappropriate) or hold onto your hand too loosely (disinterested and not a people person)? I remember meeting someone recently who hugged me too long and too hard. What does too long and too hard mean? I’m sure someone has done research on that and can tell us the exact number of seconds it’s appropriate to hug a “friend” and the exact intensity/closeness which is normal. But, we don’t need the research. We know. We intuitively know.

This brings us to the next way we listen: looking, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling. Speaking of taste and smell, let me give you examples of how we might “taste” and “smell” someone we just met. I have a friend whose husband is a smoker. When I get in their car, I can taste the cigarette smoke as well as smell it. If you like the smell of cinnamon and someone is chewing cinnamon gum or has used a cinnamon mint, you might get not only a smell in your nose but also a taste in your mouth of that spice. It predisposes you to like that person. If, on the other hand, they smell like licorice, and you can’t stand that taste or smell, you are put off before they even have a chance to say, “Hello.”

Now, let’s talk about listening with our intuitive ears and eyes. Intuitively we gather information all the time. Mostly, we are unaware that our intuitive radar is always engaged and collecting data. Somehow, though, we know when we meet someone whether that someone is to be trusted or not. We know this within seconds or minutes of meeting him or her. How is it possible that we draw such a conclusion so quickly? Our “gut” is amazing. For those of you who are PTSD survivors, here’s a place where you shine. I have never met a group of people with such refined intuition and instinctual knowledge as those who have suffered trauma. Because you were blindsided by traumatic events, you learned to tune into your intuition in ways that non-traumatized people simply don’t learn. You can sense and smell and intuit danger.

Don't be such a Vulture!!!

Don’t be such a Vulture!!!

I have told this story before, but when I worked at the Victim Assistance Program in Akron, Ohio, I was in charge of supervised visitation for children whose care-takers had been accused of being inappropriate, abusive or neglectful. Those “alleged” perpetrators were the people who were requesting to visit the children and had been court ordered to visit them “under supervision.” I had to interview the people who were allegedly trying to protect the children and the people who had allegedly been inappropriate with them. Then I’d assign the case to a trained supervisor who would watch and listen and observe. Once, by pure good fortune, when I was interviewing a grandma who looked as innocent as apple pie but was alleged to have been inappropriate with her grandchildren, one of the supervisors was in the hall when grandma walked by. The supervisor’s name was Barbara and she taught me this valuable lesson. When grandma left Barb said to me, “That woman is disgusting and totally capable of having hurt those children.” Wow. I had missed that completely. Barb was a trauma survivor, and I was not. I never again interviewed anyone when Barb was not available to hang out in the hallway. She got a vibe when someone walked past her. She was alert and aware. She listened with her intuition.

Most of us listen intuitively, too. If someone’s body language contradicts their words, we feel the hair on the back of our necks stand up. We listen for people who sound too sleazy or smarmy or sickeningly sweet. We listen, in fact, for people who are “too” anything – too standoffish, too ingratiating, too servile, too aggressive. But if my life or the life of an innocent child depended on intuiting someone’s motives and intentions, I would have a trauma survivor with me every time. Their lives, or at least their safety, have depended on knowing who to trust and who was untrustworthy.

So, into 2015 we go with a heightened awareness that we need to listen with our eyes, our ears, our senses of smell and taste and touch, and also our intuition, our “guts.” And then, lastly, we of course need to listen to everyone we meet and know and love and work with using our hearts. Our hearts help us keep listening after the thirty seconds have passed. Our hearts help us find common ground when people say things with which we disagree. Our hearts remind us to give people a break when they’re rude or quick-tempered or stingy. Our hearts hold the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Listen unto others as you would have them listen unto you. Listen from your heart, with your heart, because you have a heart.

Blessings, Susan
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Photography from that lady with a generous heart, Mary Ellen Jelen

Just a reminder: Tony Winston and I invite you to check out pillaroflightfoundation.org (We have a place set at our table just for you!)

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February 28, 2015 at 10:57 AM 2 comments


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