The Art of Conversation (Part 3 of 4)

This week we continue The Art of Conversation, part 3 of a 4 part blog series… be sure to check back weekly and let us know what you think of the art of conversation. If you missed part 2, click here.

Body Language Signs to Watch

One of the great advantages of a face-to-face encounter is that we can glean a significant amount of information by watching someone’s posture and movements. This also explains why email and other written correspondence, where there is an absence of body language, is often misunderstood.

Joe Navarro spent his career analyzing nonverbal cues during his interviews with suspects as an FBI agent. He has since written several books on nonverbal communication, including What Every Body Is Saying (HarperCollins, 2008) with Marvin Karlins, PhD. The authors believe that the limbic system of the brain, which plays a key role in regulating emotion and behavior, stimulates certain involuntary movements that stem from our basic survival system (freeze-flight-fight). When you know how to read these involuntary signals, you can pick up clues about how the conversation is going, and adjust your own language and body language as seems appropriate.

Recognize key signs of comfort.

These signs mean a conversation is going well:

  • Leaning in indicates genuine interest.
  • Touching an arm communicates trust.
  • Looking away during a conversation can, in some cases, actually be a sign of comfort, Navarro explains. It may signal the speaker is at ease enough to break eye contact to help focus her thinking.

Recognize key signs of discomfort.

These can all be cues to seek a new topic — unless, of course, you’re trying to pry an uncomfortable truth from someone:

  • Rapid eye blinking can signal nervousness.
  • Lip compression is a common sign of stress or anxiety.
  • High shoulders around the ears (“the turtle effect”) can indicate a lack of confidence and possible embarrassment.

Watch those feet. The lower limbs are the most honest part of the human body, Navarro claims, because they were the human body’s first
responders to danger for thousands of years before speech.

  • Bouncing feet can be a sign of authentic happiness or excitement, which may follow from the human habit of dancing in celebration. They can also be a sign of impatience or nervousness. Context will suggest the difference.
  • The direction of the feet also matters; if one or both are pointed toward the door, it can be a sign that your partner wants out of the conversation or is anxious to go. When someone points his or her feet directly toward you, he or she is most likely engaged.
  • Crossing the legs is usually a sign of comfort, because it puts the body off balance — and we are more willing to be off balance when we trust our situation. If both parties have their legs crossed, Navarro says, these people are probably quite comfortable together, because they are also mirroring each other.

How to Be a Better Listener

Too often, we’re barely engaged in our interactions, especially when we’re distracted by business or the dinner menu, or preoccupied with what we want to say. In short, we’re usually focused more on ourselves than on the person talking.

Business consultant Ori Brafman and psychologist Rom Brafman are interested in what allows people to truly bond. In their book, Click: The Magic of Instant Connections (Broadway Books, 2010), they explain how to be fully present during conversations. This involves careful listening, of course, but that’s only the beginning. Here are four of the Brafmans’ suggestions for listening to, and becoming genuinely engaged in, what the other person is saying.

Be intentional. Before engaging in a conversation, consciously decide to be present and open for it. This can be as simple as taking a deep breath before opening the coffee-shop door and turning off your phone before sitting down.

Be attentive. Ask for elaboration. Share your reactions honestly. Demonstrate to the other person that you are actively participating in the conversation.

Be an equal. Avoid giving advice or assuming a one-up or one-down position. Do your best to listen without a plan or an agenda.

Be your own person. Instead of getting preoccupied with how you should respond, be authentic with your emotional reactions to what the other person is saying. Get in touch with how you’re really feeling, and your conversational partner will understand you, too.

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