Last time I referred to kneeling down to get onto eye level with someone who was sitting on the pavement outside a supermarket. Clearly that is an extreme example but the principle of making good eye contact is vital. It has been said that ‘the eye is the window if the soul’ (often, probably wrongly, attributed to Shakespeare) and in that quotation lies a depth of insight. By watching someone’s eyes it is possible to ‘hear’ much of what is going on in his soul. Reporting on some of the countries I have visited I have, on occasion, said that people’s eyes lacked hope, they were ‘dead’. I don’t know physiologically what I was seeing but I knew it was in contrast to someone’s eyes that sparkle!
So to get in a position where you can look people in the eye while speaking with them will help you to understand what they are really saying. This is all a part of body language – are their eyes constantly wandering, avoiding your gaze, looking downwards? You can ‘hear’ a lot by observing this behaviour. Let’s look a bit further at ‘body language’.
Listening is not only about sound waves. It is about receiving communication from another person. One vital ingredient in this is observing body language. Without it a true understanding of what the person is trying to communicate is hard to achieve. That is why Skype can be so much more effective than a normal audio phone call – you can see the person and get their bodily reactions to what is being said, though even this is vastly inferior to being in someone’s presence.
Body language can communicate more than words. I used to be a trustee of Community Money Advice, an excellent Christian debt advice network working through local Debt Advice Centres, often churches. Their training literature on listening skills includes a chart which shows that facial expression and body language convey more than half of what we are trying to communicate; 55% compared with 38% for words. I do not know how this was measured but it demonstrates the significant contribution that body language makes to our understanding.
But there is more than just reading body language that the eyes convey. Your eyes tell the speaker you are giving your attention to them. The warmth of your eyes convey empathy. Did you realise that you can even ‘smile with your eyes’? This is such a helpful way of helping someone to speak openly as they realise they are touching your emotions, not just communicating facts.
Some people say they are embarrassed to keep looking into someone’s eyes (romance apart!). Which eye do you look at? I was given a helpful tip on this by a friend, the triangle of observation. Look alternately at each of the speaker’s eyes for long enough to register their colour (this will also help you to remember faces!) and then at the mouth. Change the point of view about every 5-10 seconds so that you avoid apparently staring at them. You can repeat this throughout the conversation
So, when you next talk to someone be conscious about what you are ‘hearing’ with your eyes. You may be surprised how much deeper the conversation will go.
Next time I will help you to listen with your mouth!