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Are People Actually Listening to and Understanding What You Say? Here Are 5 Signs to Watch. If you want to lead effectively, you need to make sure people actively listen.

By Stacey Hanke

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


Connecting with listeners through every word you speak and every movement you make requires observation and practice. Research reveals the average person listens at only about 25 percent efficiency. Observing your listeners actions while you speak is essential in learning whether or not you have the ability to influence them to act upon what you have to say.

Related: 15 Ways to Lead With Effective Communication

While body language is an effective way to sense a listener's engagement and understanding of a message, there are several others factors to be considered. Whether you're involved in a simple interaction with one person or presenting to a high-stakes crowd, there are five signs that listeners will show when they are truly connecting with you and understanding your message.

1. Body positioning

A study by UCLA indicates 55 percent of communication comes directly in the form of body language. Listeners reveal a lot about their understanding, connection and engagement simply through their body posture. An open body stance, with uncrossed arms and feet pointed toward you, reveals friendliness, agreement and acknowledgment of the verbal exchange.

Take note of how your listeners are standing or seated and if they have a relaxed, open body stance. An engaged listener also will likely lean his or her body inward toward the speaker, demonstrating a desire to hear the message being shared.

Additionally, observe the overall movement in your listener's limbs. Body stillness is indicative of an actively engaged mind undistracted by internal dialogue. Stillness also demonstrates that the listener has temporarily forgotten any internal distractions or feelings and is, instead, fully committed to your message.

Related: How to Know If You're a Bad Listener (And How to Fix It)

2. Physical acknowledgment

When listeners are connecting to a message, they often mirror expressions demonstrated by the speaker. Because facial expressions often trigger a corresponding response, actively engaged listeners will emulate smiling, raising or furrowing eyebrows, and opening or squinting their eyes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found the average engaged listener's brain activity mirrors the speaker's activity with a delay, and also often exhibits predictive anticipatory responses.

Postural echoing is also often seen when listeners are engaged in a message as they may change their body position to match that of the speaker. It can also be witnessed when the speaker shifts body weight or body position, only to have the listener respond by doing the same. This subconscious act indicates the listener is connected to the speaker on a physical level and agrees with the message.

Other physical attributes of an engaged listener include nodding of the head. This is most evident when a listener is in agreement with the points shared and is acknowledging an understanding of the message. When listeners tilt their head to one side, they are demonstrating curiosity and attentiveness.

Another physical sign of attentiveness is a decreased blink rate, which can be observed in listeners within close proximity of the speaker. This slowdown in movement is indicative of postural echoing, as well as the mind's need to slow physical responses to process the message being shared.

Related: The 4 Levels of Listening: Why Every Good Entrepreneur Should Talk Less

3. Participatory affirmations

Research indicates just two months after listening to a talk, the average listener will remember only about 25 percent of what was said, forgetting one-half to one-third of it within the first eight hours. Participatory affirmations can indicate whether or not listeners are connected to a message, and understanding it enough to remember.

During smaller conversations, connected listeners will often acknowledge a message by reacting to specific high points. For instance, people showing a genuine interest will affirm the message through verbal acknowledgments such as "uh-huh" and "mm-hmm" noises, indicating an understanding and agreement of the information being shared.

While larger groups of listeners may not verbally acknowledge points within a message, they will nod their heads simultaneously or shift their body position at the same points throughout the presentation. This type of group response indicates your message is resonating with the audience as a whole; therefore, they react as a singular unit in their participatory responses.

4. Question relevancy

A recent study published in Harvard Business Review revealed participants perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight. Engaged listeners ask questions to better understand points made and clarify the overall message. The questions will demonstrate their general understanding or curiosity of the subject being discussed.

Related: Dan Pink: You Suck at Sales Because You're a Horrible Listener

Disengaged listeners will often ask off-topic questions or request elaboration on previously discussed topic points. In order to determine question relevancy, give your audience an opportunity to ask questions before any pivotal topic changes in your discussion. This will provide insight into their understanding and allow you an opportunity to recapture any disengaged listeners.

5. Avoiding distractions

Distractions are often a speaker's biggest challenge as she competes for the listener's attention. Authors Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson conducted a study with Carnegie Mellon University and found that the mere possibility that one's phone may ring diminishes a person's listening ability and cognition skills by up to 20 percent. When a person is genuinely interested in your message, he will avoid distractions such as interruptions from others, cell phone calls and text messages. While some speakers may request devices be silenced before beginning a discussion, disengaged listeners will subconsciously seek other forms of stimulation to turn their attention toward, even in the absence of technology. When you captivate your listeners' attention, they will be less likely to engage in other activities, such as checking the clock, looking around the room, doodling or finding other activities to pass the time.

If you desire to become a stronger communicator, having more impact and influence in your message, consider these five signs of a connected and engaged listener. So, the next time you are presenting to a crowd, conducting a meeting or simply interacting with a colleague, you can be aware of how they respond to your message. These reactions provide insight into their level of engagement with your message, as well as their connection to you as a speaker. Only then will you know if you and your message have the degree of influence necessary to get others to act on what you have to say.

Related Video: Get Out of Your Own Way to Become a Better Listener

Stacey Hanke

CEO of Stacey Hanke Inc.

Stacey Hanke is author of "Influence Redefined…Be the Leader You Were Meant to Be, Monday to Monday." She is the founder of Stacey Hanke Inc. and has presented to Coca-Cola, FedEx, Nationwide, Fannie Mae and McDonald’s. She has been featured on The New York Times, Forbes and SmartMoney.

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