4.1 Visibly Tuning In

We are acutely sensitive to signals that indicate whether or not the other person is paying attention to what we’re saying. Once we get the feeling that we are being ignored, or that the other person has more important things on their mind than our words, the conversation is in trouble. It’s not enough to just tune-into the other person, you need to be seen to be tuning-in. It’s the vital first step towards connecting.

a. Switch off the autopilot. Switch on your attention

If you've ever driven a car, you know what it's like to be on auto-pilot. As you drive along, lost in your own thoughts, you're hardly aware of the passing scene. Suddenly, your attention returns to driving and you realise that miles have passed by without your noticing. Sometimes you wonder why you haven't had an accident.

A similar experience can easily happen in a conversation if you fail to consciously tune-in to the other person. At best, you're only half involved. You go through the motions, but you're not really there.

A good communicator, when in the Understander role, works hard to focus on the other person and the story, message, point of view, or case he, or she, is conveying. It's like tuning-into a station on the radio. The trick is to get rid of interference from all other sources. In conversations, ‘noise’ comes from many different sources. As you listen, you might be distracted by your surroundings. The place is too busy. You find it hard to focus. Or the noise might be inside your own head. You can't stop thinking about the fight you've had with your sister-in-law.

So, the challenge is to clear your own mind as much as possible to make room for what the other person has to say.

b. Making the other person aware of your attention

It's important that your conversational partners are aware of your attention. This is the vital first step towards encouraging someone to express himself, or herself: be visibly tuned-in. Your conversational partners ‘read’ your body language. They can tell if you are paying attention to them or not. You sense when people are really tuned-in to what you have to say, don't you? Your conversational partners do the same.

Here are some tips on how to demonstrate that you're tuned in and interested in your conversational partner.

(a) Orient yourself toward your conversational partner. This doesn't mean a military face-off. Rather let the ‘attitude’ of your body tell the other, "I'm here, I'm with you, I'm listening."

(b) Maintain eye contact at a comfortable level, but, of course, don't stare. Your conversational partners notice when your eyes wander.

(c) Use your facial expressions to show you're in tune with the mood and message of the other person. So, if the other person is being serious, show your understanding by looking serious yourself. Looking glum when your conversational partner is talking about some success she has had at work hardly indicates interest.

(d) Use gestures to indicate you are in touch. For instance, nod from time to time. It's a simple thing to do, but is perhaps the easiest way to show that your receiver is switched on. Or use some other gesture like leaning slightly forward both to pay attention to critical points and to show the other that you are in tune.

(e) Be natural, relaxed, and open, rather than formal, stiff, or hunched up. Don't send signals that distract the other from your ‘I'm listening’ posture. In the end, be yourself. No one wants an actor or a clown.

Watch two people deeply engaged in a conversation. They do all these things, but they do them naturally. They're not acting. They are instinctively ‘punctuating’ the conversation with nonverbal modifiers, many of which are signs that they are tuned in to each other. Some of us would be unpleasantly surprised if a ‘hidden camera’ were to pick up what we look like when we are in the Understander role.

c. Being there. Being genuine. It shows

It goes without saying that tuning-in visibly should be an outward sign of what's happening inside you. It’s hypocritical if your body is present while your mind is elsewhere. In a word, physical attending should mirror psychological attending.

Your listeners want you, not just signs of you. This means clearing your mind of clutter so that you can listen carefully to what the other has to say. If this is difficult, let the other know: "I just got a call from my wife. My son is ill. There's nothing I can do about it right now, but I am distracted." Then proceed with the conversation. Or put it off, if you are so distracted that you cannot really listen.

The Golden Rule of Tuning-in is, ‘Tune-in to others as you would have them tune-in to you’. You know what makes a difference to you, whether it be eye contact, a nodding head, an animated face, an open posture, or a relaxed style. You can safely make the assumption that others feel the same way about the way you attend to what they have to say.

There's a bonus for those with the ability to tune-in. Careful tuning-in sends a signal to Explainer/Tellers that you are making an effort to understand. This allows them to move forward in what they are saying. They tell their stories, deliver their messages, share their points of view, and make their cases more clearly and more crisply. The opposite is also true. Explainer/Tellers who encounter a stony, expressionless face must consider the possibility that they are not making their points. They then circle back, repeating what they have already said. This is called ‘going around the mulberry bush’. When a story becomes repetitive, it’s often as much the fault of poor tuning-in as it is of poor telling.

When Explainer/Tellers repeatedly ask you, "Do you know what I mean?" or, "Do you follow what I'm saying?" and the like, it’s often because they are no longer sure that you know what they are saying. The unspoken sentiment is, "Judging from your blank expression and the near total absence of any movement in your body, I'm not sure you're with me." In such cases Explainer/Tellers may not repeat themselves, but abandon the effort gracefully - "Well, thanks for listening …" Some may abandon the effort with less grace: "I'll get back to you on this when you're in a better frame of mind." To sum up, in conversations be there when you are in the Understander role.

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