This month, we’re exploring the importance of effective communication in leadership. In this post, we discuss how leaders can level up their listening skills—by throwing their whole bodies into it.
Ignoring the potential future benefits of knowing Spanish or French, I took four years of Latin in high school. Then, doubling down in college, I satisfied my foreign language requirement with two years of American Sign Language (ASL). Did I know any deaf or hard-of-hearing people? No. Heck, I didn’t even know anyone else who knew ASL. But something drew me to that language, and I ended up stumbling into a lesson that forever altered my perspective not only on hearing but on listening.
Sign language (American or otherwise) demands that you “listen” with your entire self. And that you “speak” the same way. Your body becomes a canvas for communication and an instrument of understanding. Where verbal communication relies on the words that you’re saying and the tone that you use to say them in order to convey information, context, and sentiment, sign language is a medium constructed through gesture and expression.
Of course, I’m simplifying things. Every verbal conversation includes nonverbal cues, just as sign language isn’t exclusively a series of hand gestures. But, as a hearing person, the lesson that to truly listen for understanding and comprehension, I needed to listen with my whole body had a profound and transformative effect on me.
In the world of sign language, listening goes beyond just “hearing” words. It’s an intricate dance of body language, expressions, posture, and gestures. Sign language requires you to pay attention, establish direct eye contact, and observe the nuanced movements of the hands. None of this “listening with half an ear” business while you check your phone. That just won’t work. Whole-body listening demands that you are present, not only in the conversation but in each moment of the conversation.
To be honest, it begs the question: Shouldn’t all communication be this way?
If our goal is to communicate with each other effectively, whether in a professional or personal capacity, shouldn’t we always be attentive? Shouldn’t every attempt to communicate be immersive?
The Art of Whole-Body Listening
Too often, when we talk about “effective communication,” we focus on how we can more effectively get across our own message. We think of “communication” as the thing we’re doing, the thing we’re saying, the thing we’re conveying. But that’s only one side of the conversation. For any communication to be genuinely effective, it must be received, understood, and accepted, so for our discussion, let’s shift the focus to the act—and art—of listening.
Listening for Understanding
Words have meaning, and that vocabulary is important, whether it’s made up of sounds or hand movements. But it’s not enough to just know the words. Whole-body listening reminds us to tune in to more than what a person is saying. Consider their demeanor and nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions, whether they’re fidgeting, and their general posture, to gain context clues and increase understanding. As we move beyond merely hearing the words, we get closer to the heart of the message.
Listening is not a passive act; it’s an active and deliberate process. Active listening is how we fully engage with a speaker and demonstrate our commitment to understanding their perspective. Eliminate distractions, lean in, and make eye contact. Provide (and invite) real-time feedback by asking open-ended questions, seeking clarification, and indicating whether you understand or agree. When you show empathy and interest, you ensure a more comprehensive and meaningful exchange of ideas.
Receiving the Message
For any communication to be effective, the listener must be open to receiving it. Whole-body listening teaches us the importance of creating an environment where individuals feel seen, heard, valued, and understood. Be aware of your own biases, preconceptions, and emotional responses. Keep an open mind and avoid getting distracted by your own thoughts or judgments—or by planning what you’re going to say next. When you’re listening, focus on listening.
A Blueprint for Meaningful Conversation
Communication is most effective when both speaker (or signer) and listener play equal and essential roles. And true understanding comes when we engage our entire being in the conversation. By embracing the practice of whole-body listening, we can begin to transform the way we connect with others, whether through spoken words, sign language, or any form of communication.
As leaders, we must not only speak with intention but listen with purpose. Whole-body listening offers a blueprint for effective and meaningful conversations. It challenges us to be fully present in our interactions, to eliminate the noise and truly hear what the other person is trying to communicate. If we let it, it teaches us to listen not with just our ears but our hearts, minds, eyes, shoulders, backs, legs… you get the idea.
When we listen with our whole selves, we can bridge gaps, build relationships, and foster a more inclusive, empathetic, and understanding world.