There are many ways in which a listener can offer feedback to a speaker, sometimes even wordlessly. Keeping an open mind is something you do internally, but you can also demonstrate openness to a speaker through your nonverbal communication.
Boothman (2008) recommends listening with your whole body, not just your ears. While you might think speaking to a room full of people with their eyes closed, arms and legs crossed, and bodies bent in slouches would help you feel less anxious, these listeners are presenting nonverbal cues that they are uninterested and unimpressed. Meanwhile, a listener sitting up straight, facing you with an intent look on his face is more likely to offer reassurance that your words are being understood.
Eye contact is another nonverbal cue to the speaker that you are paying attention. You don’t want to be bug-eyed and unblinking; as that can make the speaker uncomfortable or self-conscious. However, attentive eye contact can indicate you are listening, and help you to stay focused too.
There are some cultures where maintaining eye contact would cause discomfort, so keep that in mind. Also, you may be someone who listens better with eyes closed to visualize what is being said. This can be difficult for a speaker to recognize, so if this is you consider incorporating one of the following nonverbals while you listen with eyes closed.
Miller (1994) suggests the “listener’s lean” demonstrates “ultimate interest. This joyous feedback is reflexive. It physically endorses our communiqué.” Nevertheless, sending too many nonverbal responses to the speaker can go wrong too. After all, a conference room full of people shifting in their seats and nodding their heads may translate as a restless audience that the speaker needs to recapture.
The only way to entertain some folks is to listen to them.
~ Kin Hubbard
When providing feedback or asking questions of the speaker, approach the speaker in a positive, non-threatening way. A good listener does not seek to put the speaker on the defensive. You want to demonstrate your objectivity and willingness to listen to the speaker’s response or clarification.
You can use questions to confirm your understanding of the speaker’s message. If you’re not entirely sure of a significant point, you might ask a clarifying question. These are questions such as “What did you mean?” “Can you be more specific?” or “What is a concrete example of your point?” These can help your comprehension, while also offering the speaker feedback.
While speakers sometimes want all questions held until the end of a presentation, asking appropriate questions when the opportunity presents itself can help you as a listener. For one, you have to listen in order to be able to ask a question. Your goal should be to ask open-ended questions (“What do you think about….?” rather than “We should do …., right?”). You can use questions to confirm your understanding of the speaker’s message. If you’re not entirely sure of a significant point, you might ask a clarifying question. These are questions such as “What did you mean?” “Can you be more specific?” or “What is a concrete example of your point?”