Listening beyond words
August 25, 2020

Body language & silent dinners – listening beyond words as a leader

By Paul Laughlin

Continuing our theme of helping leaders listen and think well, let’s consider listening beyond words.

Most of us are aware of the importance of body language, tone, emotion and so much else that is communicated beyond the words others use. However, how much do we consider them as a leader? Do we pay attention to them to deepen our communications with our team?

I’m pleased to welcome back author & guest blogger Tony Boobier to consider those questions. Tony is a mentor, consultant & industry commentator. He has shared with us before on communicating bad news and innovation in lockdown.

Over to Tony to now reflect on deeper levels of listening as a leader…

Listening is more than language

When I read about Paul’s earlier blog about listening, my first thought was that there was nothing really left to say. Of course, the old adage comes to mind, which is that we were given two ears and one mouth and should use them in that order. 

But isn’t there’s more to it than that? Aren’t listening and language intertwined? 

We can ‘hear’ but not always understand. Language – and therefore listening – is full of coded messages. To be able to listen effectively requires us not only to ‘hear’ but to be able to interpret the code and sometimes to act on it. 

The role of body language

Even the expression ‘hear’ is filled with ambiguity. With body language forming a large part of human communication, the way that we as individuals hold our hands or turn our head in a conversation is all part of the communication ‘mix’. It’ll be interesting to see how that is influenced by the increased tendency towards home working, which isn’t a new thing but perhaps now is being viewed through a new lens.

Biologists might even argue that words aren’t even needed in an exchange of information. At a very basic microscopic level, messages are already being sent from one entity to another, understood and acted upon. Words, it seems, are a later development in the history of communication. 

Our ability to communicate effectively is improving all the time, even if the quality of those communications leaves something to be desired.

New communication backdrops

We already are learning some new communication lessons, such as the importance of the ‘backdrop’ in a virtual meeting. Of course, the backdrop adds nothing whatsoever to the content of the conversations but sends a coded message about who we are as individuals.

That ‘coded message’ is as critical to both the speaker and the listener as, for example, the brand of a wristwatch might have been in the past. Marketers will especially recognise the relevance of subliminal messaging which is all part of the communication process. 

Sometimes it’s not what is said but what isn’t said which adds value to any communication. From time to time, saying nothing at all is an effective method of communication. For those readers in domestic partnerships, one of the most effective tools in communication is the ‘silent dinner’ (you’ll understand what I mean if you have had one!)

Listening beyond words

Financial analysts are expert at this, as they read company results and statements and then peel back the words and look at the numbers to see the true message. ‘Profit up, revenue down’ – might be interpreted as some harsh operational cost-cutting which could ultimately impact on customer service.

But, ‘silent dinners’ aside, we can also listen when there are no words being used. We can listen, in its broadest understanding, to what is being said on social media and understand what are the key trends, how we should consider and respond to them.

We can listen to individual blogs – even ones like this – and read between the lines about what the author is really trying to say? Why is he or she writing, for what purpose and what are they trying to achieve?

Writers’ & Speakers’ motivations

George Orwell once said that he wrote for fours reasons:

  • Egotism (to show how smart he was);
  • Aesthetics (which is to do with the beauty of the written word);
  • History (to capture the moment);
  • Political purpose (to steer the world in a particular direction).

It’s an interesting exercise to apply to any writer, to understand their personal motive. The same might equally apply to any speaker, what is their raison d’etre? Is it to drum up business, raise their profile, share information or something much more subtle such as altruism? Not all of us can donate $100m US to a worthy charity like Bill Gates, but as individuals we are able to gently nudge the game forward by sharing our own experiences.

Listeners should not only hear the words which are being used by those who are keen to share but to ‘hear’ the sentiment and the motivation which sit behind them. Not just the words themselves, but rather the message, or ‘code’ that underpins the entire communication. 

Thinking to add value to the chessboard

There is an interlock between listening and thinking, in that ‘active’ listening requires us to think about what we have heard. The actual mechanism of ‘thinking’ is a different topic for a different day.

The practical application of thinking is a little like a game of chess, where you can either think incrementally (like a pawn);  laterally like a Queen which makes great sweeping moves across the playing field; or like a knight who hops from side to side. Which piece on the board do you think you are?

Sometimes we hear things and ‘park’ the idea in our heads until we have time to think about it. Key things act as a trigger to help us to think about them, or to later recollect the message intended.

Remember the picture

Visualisation has an important part in that process and expert learners who use ideas such as ‘brain-friendly learning’ recognise and ‘exploit’ the link between pictures and memory. It’s a useful technical device for professional speakers.

For example, many years ago, I gave a presentation to a group of insurers about how the imperatives of that industry might be compared to a fruit cocktail. I was subsequently stopped, two decades later, on the London Underground who said – “Aren’t you the guy with the fruit cocktail story?” The imagery had served him (and me) well. It was all part of the ‘listening process’. 

So where does this take us? 

Listening and language are intertwined, but involve more subtle things than just the use of words. Communications and messages are full of codes, some are explicit and some are more subtle. The process is as relevant at the conference-level as it is on a one-to-one level, but in a different sort of way. Silent dinners might feel painful but perhaps not as painful as a silent response to a presentation given at a conference. 

So the single message is one of recognising the value of non-verbal communication, even and perhaps especially in the listening process. The quieter it is, the better we can learn and the more we are able to hear what is really happening.

Are you mastering listening beyond words as a leader?

Thanks to Tony for that encouragement to listen beyond words and watch out for those clues to what else is being communicated.

How are your communication skills as a leader? Have you managed to adapt and hone them as you transition to remote working and more video meetings? In that context are you managing to listen beyond words & think about what else you are communicating?

I wish you well with developing ‘listening beyond words‘ within your leadership skillset. It can make a considerable difference to your effectiveness.