Paying attention to someone during a conversation is called “attending” and it means that you are focusing, looking and showing physical interest.
These three components of conversation – focusing, looking and showing physical interest – are easy to understand and produce more satisfying conversations. When your ears, your eyes, your body and your feelings are all focused on that person at one time, you are attending to the conversation.
Showing Physical Interest
Simply being physically present to listen to your conversational partner may not be enough to show the other person that you are interested in what they have to say. Using body language is a key component of attending and how you position your body can show the other person your level of engagement.
For instance, closed body language indicates that you are not entirely interested in what the other person has to say. Folded arms, crossed legs, angling your body away from the speaker – these are all signs of disinterest. More overt body cues of disinterest may include yawning, looking away or bouncing a leg in anticipation of leaving.
Open body language, on the other hand, invites conversation and demonstrates your interest in the other speaker. Relaxed arms, hands in an open position and your body aimed directly at your conversational partner show that you are listening and paying attention to what they have to say. Other examples of open body language are head nodding, resting your chin on your hand and leaning forward.
Focusing means all of your physical and psychological attention is directed toward the other person while communicating. Not only are you using open body language, but your mind is focused on what is being said.
You may feel that relating similar personal experiences or offering solutions may be indicative of your interest but it may inadvertently take the focus away from the other person and place it on you. Even though you may feel you are offering empathy, it may seem that you are shifting the focus on yourself.
If you feel the need to give verbal confirmation that you understand what the other person is saying, a simple, “Oh, okay,” or “I see,” is enough to let them know you are listening. In order to establish empathy, you can paraphrase what they have said back to them.
Paraphrasing is a communication tool that involves repeating back to someone what they said in your own words. This shows not only that you heard them, but that you understand them as well.
For example, your conversational partner may say something like:
“My boyfriend is driving me crazy. He says one thing and then does another!”
You can then paraphrase by saying:
“It sounds like your boyfriend confuses you.”
Eye contact is another important attending skill when having conversations with others. Eye contact doesn’t mean staring intently into someone else’s eyes as they speak – it means that you keep your gaze in their general direction to show that you are listening to what they have to say.
Some people may have difficulty maintaining eye contact, if it is not direct and only in the direction of the speaker, but is it important to make sure your eye contact does not travel around the room. Avoid checking your watch, your phone or the clock on the wall. Also try not to get distracted by other activity happening around you.
At the very least, keep looking in the general direction of the speaker’s face, even if you let your gaze rest on their ear or cheek. Typically, people only maintain eye-to-eye contact less than 70% of the time during conversations.