We know that body language usually communicates more than what you say, and identifying these physical queues is something we’ve been socialized to identify our entire lives. We know that yawning, for instance, often comes across as boredom. We know how to express good listening skills by maintaining eye contact and sitting upright instead of slumping down in our chairs and doodling in notebook margins. In class discussions, professors have to be particularly apt at reading students’ body language. They have to sense when a student is trying to jump into the class discussion but can’t quite get a word in. They have to know the difference between diligent note-taking and avoidance of eye contact. They have to know an “aha” moment from a complacent nod.
However, how much can we really control in these exchanges, whether it be on the part of the speaker or the listener? How can we hold ourselves accountable for the messages we intend to communicate and those we don’t?
An important caveat to this question is that the speaker and the listener are both interpreting and communicating at the same time. What we say, how we respond (verbally or silently), and the body language that accompanies both, all create a collaborative “text” for both the speaker and listener to interpret. In this sense, “active listening” doesn’t just describe the actions we take to reassure the speaker that we are listening, but rather, characterizes the act of listening as a response, or a choice, that impacts the exchange in powerful ways.
While we can’t completely control how others’ interpret our ideas, we can leave less room for more egregious misinterpretations (particularly in the absence of words, such as when we are listening) by harnessing the power of the physical internally. As previous posts have described, our body language changes the way we think. Psychologists such as Amy Cuddy have been doing years of research that demonstrates just how powerful the link between body language and identity is. As her TED Talk shows, striking what Cuddy calls a “power pose” — sitting up straight, lifting your arms in the air, doing jumping jacks, or simply uncrossing your legs to fill up more space — lowers cortisol (the stress hormone) and increases testosterone (the dominance hormone, which is usually the precursor to more assertive, confrontational behavior). Slumping down in your chair, then, does more than send a message to the speaker that you’re bored or disinterested — it actually lowers the likelihood that you can be interested and engaged.
The infographic below (created by OnlineUniversity.com) suggests, too, that small physical changes make a big difference. But, what about moments when we don’t want to listen? When is listening “badly,” consciously or unconsciously, a form of resistance, and what discursive impacts does that resistance illicit?