Showing Interest

“Active listening” is not just “listening” or “paying attention,”  which is merely receiving information from another person without giving them feedback. When practicing active listening, you respond to the speaker with verbal and nonverbal signs to show that you are paying attention, that you care about what they are saying, and that you care about them.

Active listening cues are signs of interest. But what if you are not interested in the topic of conversation? What if you have heard the story the speaker is telling before? What if you pride yourself on your honesty and cannot abide the thought of feigning interest?


The key here is a question of degree. Most people increase active listening cues when they are actually interested and decrease them when they are not – but they don’t turn them off altogether, because that would signal not just a lack of interest in the topic but a total lack of interest in the speaker.
If you have never thought about active listening cues before, it may be challenging for you to develop different intensities of active listening, to send these signals appropriately, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t fulfill the same goals in different ways. Although most people use nonverbal active listening cues for maximum efficiency, they certainly won’t mind if you say something like “Please keep going — this is interesting!” For polite ways of showing that you’re not interested in the current topic, even though you care about the relationship, see changing the topic.


When Active Listening is Important

Active listening is always important, as a total lack of active listening cues signals a lack of caring for the speaker. But the degree of active listening we expect varies according to what type of meaning is being expressed.

Ritual Exchanges (Least Active Listening Required)

Exchanging greetings with someone you already know doesn’t require very active listening. People generally seem to reuse a handful of frozen phrases (“How are you?” “What’s up?” “Hey”, etc.) and are expressing nothing more important than acknowledging your presence. The speaker doesn’t expect a sincere or detailed response, just a reciprocal expression of greeting. In fact, it’s quite common to hear a mismatched pair of greetings (“What’s up?” → “Fine, how are you?” or “How are you?” → “Not much. What’s up with you?”), showing that most people don’t even listen to the actual words of the greeting! Of course, someone may really want to know how you are (especially if you have recently had troubles), but typically this will wait until later in the conversation. Other ritual interactions include service exchanges (“You want fries with that?”–> “Yes, please.” or “Can I get you anything else?” → “No, thank you.”, etc.) and exchange of leave-takings (“Bye.” → “See ya!”) (but note that a great deal of conversational work may be required before one gets to the ritualized leave-taking: see ending a conversation.)

Informational Exchanges (Some Active Listening Required)

Unemotional exchanges of information (say, reports during a business meeting, a classroom lecture, giving or receiving directions, answering a factual question, etc.) require demonstrations that you have understood the information, but not much more. Quite often, once the business portion of a conversation has concluded, the conversation may change to an exchange of opinions and judgments, making the conversation more social, and requiring more active listening.

More Interpersonal Speech: Opinions and Judgments (More Active Listening Required)

Exchanges of opinion and judgment are simultaneously informational (as these opinions and judgments may be new and important information) and interpersonal (as they represent some sharing of private thoughts and personality that allow you to form a closer relationship). By giving your opinion, you are risking disagreement (which may damage the relationship), and allowing other people to make judgments about you. If someone is willing to open up to you in this way, you must not only show that you understand, but that you care. It is certainly fine to disagree, even to argue about opinions, as long as you can simultaneously convey that you still like and respect the person you’re disagreeing with. If you do not use active listening skills and only focus on your own thoughts and opinions, you will look like a jerk who does not care about the person you’re talking to. Most people will care more about preserving the relationship than about winning an argument; with active listening and some common sense and courtesy, it is actually possible to do both.

Emotional Interpersonal Speech (The Most Active Listening Required)

By sharing feelings and emotions, the speaker is taking even greater risks (of embarrassment, loss of privacy, potential rejection) in order to reinforce or deepen your relationship. People typically only do this kind of sharing when they have already established a meaningful relationship; by opening up, they are showing you that they trust you. Failure to use a wide variety of active listening cues in these situations can seriously damage the relationship, as you will appear not to care about the speaker or the relationship. (For more about this, see expressing emotion.)

A Few Things that can Work Against Active Listening


Interruptions

Interrupting someone can be the antithesis of active listening, as it can communicate “I care so little about what you’re saying that I’m not even going to let you finish,” but this is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. Some “high engagement cultures” (people of Jewish, Italian, and Greek heritage, for example, or people who grew up in the New York/New Jersey area, to name just a few) feature speakers who often speak simultaneously (and loudly!) without the speakers themselves perceiving that anyone is interrupting or shouting. (In fact, someone who does not routinely cut others off may be perceived as not really engaged in the conversation.) Some linguists distinguish between “overlap” and “interruption”: If your overlapping shows that you have understood what the other person was saying and that you are excited about the topic, it does not necessarily work against active listening. (See turn-taking for more information about this.)

Abrupt Changes of Topic

Introducing a new topic before everyone has said everything they wanted to about the previous topic can feel like an interruption, signalling not only that you’re uninterested in the topic, but that you don’t care much about the people you’re talking to (because you don’t care that they are interested in this). (See changing the topic for more information about this.)

Avoidance of Eye Contact

Most speakers will glance at you occasionally to see if you’re listening, if you’ve understood, if you are interested or amused, and so on. If you avoid eye contact at those moments, they will assume that you’re not listening (and therefore not interested in either the conversation or them) or that you don’t like what you hear. No sustained eye contact is required, or even desired! Typically, in the dominant U.S. culture (but look at dialects for a brief discussion of ethnic differences!), listeners watch the speaker fairly attentively, but the speaker only returns eye contact sporadically and fleetingly. (And if the speaker is addressing several people simultaneously, they’ll check in with you individually even less regularly and more briefly.) If eye contact between speaker and listener is caught and held, it is done to send a particular message (either “what I’m saying is directed specifically at you now,” or as a turn-taking cue). (If you watch a lot of TV, this may surprise you, as actors, newscasters, talk show hosts, etc., tend to talk to “you” by staring straight into the camera. This is, of course, not like real life!)

Note that people can do very successful active listening on the telephone or in the dark, so avoidance of eye contact doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. If you are talking face-to-face to someone who doesn’t know you well, you may need to explain that you can’t listen well if you’re getting visual stimulation at the same time, and that looking away actually shows that you’re concentrating on their words – and then be sure to increase other active listening cues to compensate!

Engagement in Other Activities

Some people are better at multi-tasking than others: they can be active listeners while they knit, chop vegetables, shuffle and deal cards, play piano, or whatever other activity they’re doing (often on “autopilot”). Some people, however, are not so good at dividing their attention. If you appear to be too caught up in your other activity, the speaker will feel that you are not paying enough attention to them. If you have had a problem with active listening in the past (if you have been accused of not paying attention), you may want to put down whatever you’re doing at the time and focus all your attention on active listening. This sends a clear message that the speaker’s message (and thus the speaker as well) is more important to you than your other activity.

Active Listening Cues

Not all of these responses need to be used in every conversation, but using a mix of verbal and nonverbal techniques is more likely to result in the perception that you are interested and you care, which is the most important part of establishing and maintaining good relationships. If one technique makes you uncomfortable, you can compensate by using other techniques. You might start by practicing each separately until it feels natural, but then try to combine them. Overusing just a single technique is likely to backfire.

Verbal Active Listening Cues


Positive Minimal Response

As the speaker is speaking, support what they’re saying with sounds or words of approval or surprise: mmhmm, uh-huh, oh wow, yeah?, really?, no way! These brief interjections do not interrupt; it’s clear you’re interested and encouraging the speaker to continue, especially when said with rising intonation. However, if you use this technique every time the speaker says anything, you will quickly begin to sound sarcastic and insincere. Notice that these interjections can be made with more or less intensity, more or less volume, more or less exaggerated intonation, depending on how interested (or not) you are in the actual topic.

Rephrasing

By rephrasing what the speaker just said, you show that you heard and understood, and you give the speaker the opportunity to correct your understanding if necessary. Giving the speaker that opportunity shows that you really do care about understanding them correctly. (If you’ve ever had any kind of therapy, you will recognize this as a standard technique used by therapists.) If you over-rely on this technique, however, you will begin to sound like a parrot, with no ideas of your own. This technique is particularly convenient if you’re not actually interested in the topic, as it doesn’t necessarily imply interest, just understanding, and does not overtly urge them to continue.

Asking for More

Asking questions that encourage the speaker to elaborate shows that you’ve been following the conversation and are interested in hearing more. Questions can be as simple as “what did you do then?” or “how did that turn out?” or “why do you think he did that?” You can even ask questions the speaker has already answered, as long as you make it clear that you know this was already mentioned: “Wait, what did you say she said?” or “I know you already said this, but what did she say then, exactly?” This shows attention (you know this was mentioned) plus enough interest to be sure you’ve understood all the details. You should only use this technique if you are actually interested in the topic, because it does overtly urge the speaker to continue.

Positive Evaluation (Compliment)

You may have been waiting for someone to finish their turn so you can take yours, but before you rush in, it never hurts to take a brief moment to show that you enjoyed the previous speaker’s contribution: “What a great story!” or “That’s so funny!” (if they told a joke) or “You explain things so clearly!” This smacks of obvious flattery if overused, and you don’t want to be insincere – but if you can occasionally and honestly say such things, people will certainly enjoy speaking with you.

Nonverbal Active Listening Cues


Gaze and Eye Contact

This is one of the most difficult types of active listening to master. As discussed above, speakers in the U.S. tend to glance only occasionally and briefly at their listeners, but listeners are expected to keep their gaze more focused on the speaker, allowing the speaker to easily make eye-contact when desired (to emphasize a particular point, or as a turn-taking cue). Too much eye contact (holding contact for more than a few seconds) may be viewed as aggressive (the listener demanding a turn at talk, or a sign of challenge, or as a sexual invitation). On the other hand, refusing to let the speaker make eye contact (not gazing at the speaker to start with, or glancing away as soon as the speaker catches your eye) will be seen as a sign of disinterest and/or untrustworthiness (having something to hide). Women tend to use more eye contact than men, particularly with other women. (Of course, this may explain why women are thought to be better listeners than men.) In general, people make less eye contact if they are sitting or standing close together (because then it would seem too sexual), or if they are discussing difficult, embarrassing, private topics (showing that we feel vulnerable discussing these topics).

You can try to develop more typical patterns of eye contact using the exercises from this unit and the turn-taking unit, but if eye contact is too intense for you, you may need to explain to your conversational partners that you listen better if you don’t make eye contact – and be sure to increase other active listening cues to compensate!

Mirrored Facial Expressions

Using appropriate facial expressions can show empathy, showing that you understand and share the speaker’s emotions – which is a bonding experience. Try to match the speaker’s expressions, smiling if they smile, frowning if they frown, wrinkling your nose if they look disgusted, widening your eyes if they look surprised, etc.

If you have trouble with eye contact, you may not notice (or have learned how to read) others’ facial expressions, and therefore you won’t be able to match them. This won’t stop others from paying attention to and interpreting your facial expressions, however. If you feel comfortable that you can recognize the speaker’s emotions by the tone of their voice (in combination with the messages they’re producing), you could still try matching your facial expression to their emotions.

But if this seems too complicated, you might want to try the “happy/sad smile” technique. Smiling at someone is a great way to communicate that you are happy to be with them and are enjoying listening to them. But there is a risk: if they tell you something sad and you continue to produce a happy smile, you will appear to be enjoying their pain – definitely not a friendly response. So most of us have developed our “sad smiles” or “brave smiles”: the lips curve slightly up, but are pressed together (and may even quiver), and the eyes look sad. This communicates sadness to empathize with the message while still conveying that you like the speaker and enjoy the conversation.

Check out this great example of mirroring during an ongoing conversation.

Fake (Social) Smiles

Most people have a “fake” (social) smile they can use to signal that they are being good/active listeners but are not actually interested in the topic or not actually amused. You can distinguish a genuinely happy smile from a purely social one because in the latter, the lips are kept together and curve only slightly upwards, and only briefly, not prolonged. There is no simultaneous narrowing of the eyes, so “laugh lines” do not appear around the eyes.

Compare the genuine smile and the social (“fake”) smile: face140 face139

Fake (Social) Laughter

Likewise, most people have fake (social) laughs, to show that they are not genuinely amused, but they do recognize that the speaker was trying to amuse, they appreciate the intention, and do not wish to hurt the feelings of the speaker. Social laughs can be distinguished from genuinely amused ones because the mouth is kept closed and there is just a single pulse of laughter — it sounds like air being gently snorted out the nose, with or without accompanying vocalization in the mouth. When this co-occurs with a fake smile (which is quite common), it clearly expresses fake amusement, and will not be taken as a signal that the fake-laugher has something to say. A fake laugh that occurs with no smile, with pursed lips, or even a slight frown is generally interpreted as a “huh” sound — a sign of surprised interest and thought — which may also interpreted to mean that you would like a turn at talk. All of these uses and interpretations imply active listening, and so are socially valued!

You should not think of these behaviors as insincere, but as a form of short-hand code that has developed over time. You are sending a sincere message that you still appreciate the speaker, even if you are not pleased or amused by what they say, and this message will be correctly interpreted and understood.

This (spliced-together) clip contains two examples of a social (fake) laugh. In the first instance, the professor asks “Who else teaches at Mills?” and the student replies “I have a list.”  The social laugh here seems to be a signal that she is not trying to put herself above him by having knowledge that he lacks.  In the second case, he acknowledges that he “butchered” the title of a book (he hasn’t remembered it correctly), and she laughs as if this were a joke (rather than the simple truth), to reassure him.

Nodding

This is one of the easiest active listening cues to master. By nodding slightly, you show agreement and empathy with what the speaker is saying. It can be easily mixed with other techniques such as positive minimal response. The only caveat here is that you don’t want to nod constantly (which could be distracting, like a bobble-head!) or too vigorously (which implies more than active listening, that you especially agree with the point being made).

Posture and Body Language

Typically, when practicing active listening, your body should face the speaker. (This helps you maintain eye contact, too.) This technique, like nodding, can be easily combined with other techniques, and can be constant throughout a conversation. Sometimes males prefer to sit side by side when talking, while females tend to prefer to face one another. Leaning forward (towards the speaker) can also show interest in what the speaker is saying – but you have to be aware of proximity issues here: a lean that brings you into the speaker’s personal space (in touching distance) could be interpreted as sexual interest. Slouching can also send a message: in informal situations, it may simply show that one is relaxed; in a more formal situation, it can be interpreted as lack of interest. “Good” posture (sitting or standing very straight) may be interpreted as a sign of interest in a formal situation, but may signal lack of comfort in informal circumstances.

If Someone Thinks You’re Not Listening

If the speaker thinks you’re not listening, then she will start using subtle signs to try to get your attention.  Whether or not you were actually listening, you have committed a social blunder, hurting the feelings of the speaker by implying a lack of interest.


Verbal Signs

  • Raising the volume of the voice
  • Repeating what was just said
  • Adding tag questions to the end of a sentences to force a response (“don’t you think?”, “right?” etc.)
  • Asking if you heard, or asking you to repeat what was just said
  • Stopping talking
  • Changing the subject abruptly to an unrelated topic
  • Sarcastically saying “Hello?” (“Is anybody home?”)

Nonverbal Signs

  • Staring or suddenly making more direct eye contact
  • Looking angry or upset
  • Snapping fingers, using hand gestures, or touching you lightly
  • Walking away

If you were not, in fact, paying attention…

If you were not, in fact, paying attention, you can still salvage the situation. Hopefully, you’ll have some good explanation/excuse: something on your mind, or some environmental distraction, so that you can share this with the speaker, and make it clear that you are interested in the topic and or at least that you do care about the speaker. So apologize (without being defensive), explain (if you have a good explanation), ask the speaker to repeat what you missed, and then start paying attention!

If you were paying attention….

If you were paying attention, you should say so (but not angrily or defensively – remember that even though you aren’t guilty of the offense you were accused of, you are still guilty of a social blunder). Try to rephrase or even quote what the speaker has just said to prove it. Then, ask the speaker to continue. Later, when a topic-transition is appropriate, you could explain to the speaker that you know you sometimes don’t appear like you’re listening, but that you’re working on understanding why. Ask them to explain why they thought you weren’t listening.

Exercises

Scholarly Sources

  • Brownell, Judi. (1986). Building Active Listening Skills. Prentice-Hall.
  • Rost, Michael. (1990). Listening in Language Learning. Longman.
  • Manusov, Valerie & Miles L. Patterson. (2006). The SAGE Handbook of Nonverbal Communication. Sage Publications.

Recommended Reading/Viewing

  • BBC Video.  (2001). The Human Face [DVD].  Watch free online at http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-human-face/
  • International Listening Organization. http://www.listen.org/
  • White, Goodith. (1998). Listening. Oxford University Press.

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