As I enjoy writing and public speaking, and generally put a lot of importance on verbal expression, I haven’t always given my nonverbal communication the attention it deserves. Traditionally, I’ve had mixed feelings about becoming more aware of the messages my body conveys to others. On one hand, I understand how central body language is to creating rapport between people. On the other, I don’t want to get overly self-conscious about my nonverbal communication, and to go through my everyday interactions filled with anxiety about the impression my body is creating.
This was before I learned that the best way to build rapport with someone else—to create a sense of connection with them—is simply to give them your full attention. People, I’ve found, can sense it when your attention is completely focused on them, and when they do, they feel deeply secure, relaxed and understood.
This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Many of us are accustomed to letting our minds wander when we talk to others, and only half-listening to our conversation partners. Some of us plan or worry about our daily activities while we’re conversing; others mentally rehearse what they’re going to say when the other person finishes; and still others are constantly looking around for something more stimulating in the surrounding environment. To be fully attentive, we have to quiet these mental distractions.
Nor will pretending to listen help. I’m talking about actually giving someone your full attention—not moving your body or speaking in an effort to convince them they have it. For instance, it’s possible to make unbroken eye contact, lean your body forward so as to pick up every word, and say “yeah, I’m listening,” but for your awareness to be lost in your own thoughts. If this is happening, you won’t achieve the kind of rapport you want, and the other person will get a nagging sense that something is out of place.
I first recognized this during a conversation with a friend a while back. She is an inveterate worrier, and she tends to bring up basically the same anxieties with me every time we talk. After a while, I have to admit, I got tired of running over the same list of problems, and I started using the moments when she’d bring up her worries as opportunities to think about other tasks I needed to deal with. My eyes would be focused on hers, and I’d nod and acknowledge what she said, but my attention would be elsewhere.
One day, I decided to try a different approach. I did my best to empty my mind of thoughts of the past and possible future, and to place my full attention on her as she spun her tale of woe. I fixed my awareness not only on the words she was saying, but on the tone of her voice and the place it seemed to be coming from in her body.
After I’d spent a few minutes in this state of simply perceiving her, without any mind activity, I started noticing subtle changes in her behavior. Her eyes began to widen and look more alert, her face took on a healthier color, and she began to grin and giggle even as she listed her anxieties. Eventually, she broke into a full smile, and the conversation completely shifted gears from her unhappiness to how much she enjoyed seeing me again. I did nothing to create this change in her, apart from listening with an unclouded, undistracted mind.
Another interesting observation I made was that giving my friend my full attention improved my own emotional state. When I held her in my thought-free awareness, a warm feeling spread through my chest, and I started to more richly experience the joy of being with her as well. I felt completely willing—and wanting—to listen to anything she might say, even if it was her standard list of woes all over again.
In that moment, it struck me that “paying attention” is a somewhat misleading expression. The idea that I’m “paying” attention to someone implies that I’m giving them something without receiving anything in return—or, perhaps, that I’m expecting them to “repay” me in the future. In fact, however, lending my friend my undivided attention helped both of us enjoy the conversation more.
Since then, I’ve made a conscious attempt to bring my full attention to every interaction I have in my daily life. Whether I’m talking to a client, a loved one, or the guy who takes my order at the coffee shop, I’ve made a habit of putting aside all my outside concerns and fully holding that person in my awareness. I’ve found that, even though the words used in my regular interactions haven’t changed much—I still ask the coffee shop guy for a drink and thank him when he gets it—my conversations have a new quality of joy and aliveness about them.
Scholars in diverse fields have long understood the connection between fully listening to a person and developing rapport with them. Psychologist Karl Menninger, for instance, wrote that “[l]istening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, and makes us unfold and expand.”
Similarly, physician Gary Allan Ratson observes that devoting your full attention to someone is more likely to create a sense of connection than any sort of “attention-paying” body language. As he writes, “[i]t’s more than our welcoming smile, warm eyes, gentle movements, and sincere tone of voice that warms another’s heart. These are manifestations of the primary loving awareness that puts people at ease, makes them feel at home, and assures them that someone cares.”
If you’re hoping for more meaningful and fulfilling interactions with others, the most important practice I can recommend is to bring your full awareness to your conversations. This works best when you pay attention to more than just the other person’s words—when you can hold their movements, voice tone, and other aspects of their expression in your awareness, they’ll feel most cared for and respected, and rapport tends to follow naturally. Not only is it pleasurable for others to receive your full attention—you’ll also feel more joy in your interactions when you’re completely focused on them.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Improving Life, located at http://posts.blogcarnival.com/page.php?p=142750.)
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