Good listening skills: the nonverbal communication advantage

Good listening skills: the nonverbal communication advantage

As athletes you are probably expected to do a lot of listening: to coaches, advisors, teachers, teammates, business mentors and others who want you to learn from their wisdom. When these people are speaking to you, they will be judging you based on whether they think you are taking them seriously. And that judgment will be strongly based on your listening skills, your nonverbal behavior while they are speaking.


To understand the impact listening skills can have on others’ opinion of you, draw some insight from your own experience.


  1. Recall a time when you thought you were sharing an important idea with someone and at some point realized your remarks were being ignored.
  2. What did you observe about the other person’s behavior that signaled they were not interested in what you were saying?
  3. How did that experience make you feel about yourself?
  4. About the other person?


What you may have found is that people are greatly affected by poor listening behaviors–that a person’s subsequent behavior in a conversation, their feelings about themselves and about the other person all are influenced by how they felt once they realized they were being ignored.


Fortunately, once you become conscious of what good listening looks like to speakers, it is easy to be perceived as a respectful listener. It only requires you to consciously monitor your behavior when others are speaking to you. This means establishing eye contact with the speaker 50-70% of the time; minimal encouragers, such as head nods and occasional relevant questions; a posture of involvement, such as leaning forward in an open position; and empathetic facial expressions.


You need also avoid behaviors that suggest you are not interested in the conversation, such as a lack of eye contact, frequent interruptions, answering a cell phone, exhibiting a “stone face,” or abruptly changing the subject.


The dilemma many athletes face is that positive listening behaviors may not come naturally. Developing good listening skills is not the same as having good hearing. Keeping a “stone face” to not show a reaction to an opponent’s score–or pain or discomfort suffered in a collision–has its place in a competition. Scanning the field for opportunities rather than looking at teammates with effective eye contact may become habits that prove valuable on the field while creating the appearance of rudeness and indifference to a speaker in a one-to-one conversation.


Fortunately, good listening skills are easy to identify and to put into practice with conscious effort. The effort is worth the reward as speakers have a gift for attentive listeners—their trust as well as well as assigning positive traits to the listener such as courteous, attentive, concerned, and respectful, all critical attributes of successful employees.


Henry David Thoreau said that the “greatest compliment ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought and attended to my answer.” Planning listening behaviors to meet a speaker’s highest criteria pays rich dividends to those who take the time to practice them.


Exercise: In a small group of fellow athletes, including members of both genders, record answers to the following six questions on a chart-pad and discuss their implications.


  1. What have you observed that lets you know someone is listening to you?


  1. How does it make you feel when you know someone is listening to you?


  1. What words have you used to describe people who have listened to you attentively?


  1. What have you observed that lets you know someone is ignoring you?


  1. How does it make you feel when you know someone is ignoring you?


  1. What words have you used to describe someone who has ignored you?



tclark administrator

Thomas Clark, PhD, President of CommuniSkills and Professor of Management at Xavier University, has been a writing and oral communication consultant for a wide variety of businesses including Procter & Gamble, “the business writing capital of the world,” where he has led over 500 business communication workshops. He has also taught workshops for other Fortune 500 companies, including General Electric, Microsoft, Nestle, AK Steel, General Cable, Mars Petcare and Kellogg. He has published three books on business communication and one on career strategies. He has been honored with two Teacher of the Year awards at Xavier, and The US Small Business Administration has recognized him with three national awards for teaching excellence in the field of entrepreneurship. He earned his doctorate at Indiana University and is certified as an instructor in both Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability. Richard Zaunbrecher, BChE, MBARichard Zaunbrecher, BSChE, MBA, Vice President and Director of Communiskills’ Boston office, has a diverse background that allows him to understand and give constructive feedback on a broad range of business communication issues. He first learned sound business communication principles at Procter & Gamble, the business communication capital of the world. He has worked with CommuniSkills for 25 years and has taught both oral and written communication skills to a variety of businesses including Microsoft, Safeway, P&G dos Brazil, Gillette, AliCorp, Credit Suisse First Boston, Coca-Cola, Citibank, Viacom, Clorox, KPMG, General Electric, Union Central Insurance, Clarica, Allstate, and Prudential Insurance.

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