I am listening! The perils of head nodding...


I was having lunch with a new acquaintance and it didn’t take long before she started expounding on her world views. Being interested, I nodded as she spoke, made several “mmm’s” and “ahuh’s” and she continued with increasing enthusiasm. Then I interjected with a challenge, she was a bit startled but picked up again. I came back with a “I don’t agree” and explained why. She seemed a bit confused again but restated her point. This went on for a couple of minutes before she suggested we switch topic.

Thinking about it later, and wondering why the mood had gone from eager discussion to confusion and some annoyance, I realized I may have wrong-footed my lunch partner with my listening style: I am a head nodding, mmm’ing and ahuh’ing active listener. I may even throw in a couple of replays or paraphrases of what you said to make sure I get it, but all this means is that I am listening and trying to understand you. It does not mean I am agreeing with you. Of course, if you were brought up to use nodding only when you agree, and not as a demonstration of your listening, then you might well wonder what is going on with this duplicitous head-bobber!

Now I have had a bicultural upbringing and spent close to a decade working in a multicultural environment but still, it took this lunch for me to fully realize that communication differences are also at work in how we show we are listening.

Consider this example, courtesy of Erin Meyer in her book “the Culture Map”. She describes a meeting she co-lead with a Chinese partner where – to her mounting alarm – he remained silent and nearly motionless while she went on and on. She asked him about his behavior later and he explained that in China, to show you are a good listener, you keep both your voice and your body quiet. He also mentioned that Chinese are often left wondering about all the interruptions and movements their Western counterparts make at meetings – who presumably are just at their active listening best!

Eye contact can be misleading too. Several times I've been in mid-conversation and just dying to say "will you look at me!" - I am so used to people making eye contact when I am speaking that it is hard to adjust when they don't. But how you make eye contact during a conversation is culturally determined. In some it is the norm to focus on the other's face and eyes while you are speaking and then look away while listening, in others it is the opposite. Of course, people might make or break eye contact for other reasons, but if you're not aware of the typical pattern your interpretation of their behavior may be way off.

I don’t know to what extent I can (or want to) change how I show I am listening, but at least being aware of the differences in how we demonstrate we’re paying attention gives me a chance to fix any misleading head nods or uncomfortable eye contact before the miscommunication gets out of hand!

(Originally posted on LinkedIn 9 September, 2014)