We know our body language and our tone of voice heavily impacts our communication with others. We know those two areas have to align with the words we actually speak for us to have credibility in what we are trying to communicate. Our words have to align with our body language and tone of voice. So, now, let’s talk about the other side of communication and what it looks like when we are listening as a communicator.
I’d like to tell you about a model we use that we call the SLOWER listening model. It means slow down and listen. Let’s talk about what the S, the L, the O, the W, the E, and the R stand for.
The S stands for square up and silence. It means square up to the person who is talking to you, face them, be silent, and listen to what they have to say.
What does the L mean? Lean in to the conversation. Lean in and listen. Show that you are interested in listening to what the other person has to say.
What does the O mean? It means have an open posture and ask open-ended questions. Don’t be closed off when you’re listening because people aren’t sure you’re listening when your body language is closed. Remember, fifty-five percent of what we communicate is in our body language. So have open posture. When you’re talking to someone, also ask them open-ended questions. Give them an opportunity to talk more. Don’t just use yes and no questions, but open it up for them to talk so you can listen.
The W means a willingness to be engaged. That means that maybe you turn around and away from your computer and phone and listen. In other words, a willingness to be engaged in the whole conversation with your whole body, your ears, and your eyes.
What does the E stand for? Eye contact. Look at the person talking to you, listen to them even with your eyes. Looking directly at someone shows them respect. Here’s a caution. In some cultures, eye contact is not appropriate for that culture and eye contact can be disrespectful. You’ll need to make the decision about whether eye contact in your culture fits for you.
What does the R stand for? It means relax, respond, and maybe even repeat back what they said if it’s necessary to be sure that full communication took place on your part as you listen to what they have to say.
What SLOWER Does NOT Look Like
It’s really important not only that we are big-time communicators with communication going out, but that we’re also healthy communicators with communication coming in. If I were able to show you what the SLOWER listening model looks like in actual practice, I could show you what it looks like to square up and be silent as we lean in and listen with open posture and open-ended questions and a true willingness to be engaged while making eye contact and being relaxed and responding and repeating if necessary.
Now, I’m over six feet tall, so let’s say I’m going to do all these things with a smaller person, say a female, who’s about five feet tall. Imagine with me this scenario for a moment. I’m about to have a conversation with this woman, and both of us are standing up. I might square up and walk toward her and start out with a loud and rather imposing voice. “Hey, Julie. Are you doing well? I can’t wait until the next time that we’re together. When do you think we could get together next?” And all the time, I would be walking pretty decisively toward her, gesturing with my hands to show how engaged I am, looking her straight in the eye even though she has to tilt her head back and look upward so she can look at my face and make eye contact. And soon I’m so close to her I’m hovering over her and leaning into the point that she is so uncomfortable that she smiles sheepishly, backs up, and turns away, unable to engage.
Now, you understand I’m doing everything I told you about good listening in this imaginary setting. I’m leaning in. I’m making eye contact. And I asked some open-ended questions. But, would that look like a good way to listen and to be engaged to you? Obviously, that’s not a good listening model.
One point I want to bring out in this description is to intentionally share with you that even the difference in our height and size matters as I come toward her because they alone can make her feel uncomfortable. If we’re intentional about being good listeners, then we know that we can still square up and be silent, and we can still lean in and listen without doing it the way I just described.
What SLOWER DOES Look Like
Now, if I were to describe doing the SLOWER listening model the right way, here is what it would look like. If I go up to Julie and notice right away that I’m a lot taller or bigger than she and that my height could be overpowering, a square-up might be more of a half-turn toward her rather than a full face-to-face, squared-up body posture. In that situation, I would stand far enough away from her so that she doesn’t have to tilt her head backward to look up at me, and I would turn a little bit away to make her more comfortable. With that stance, she wouldn’t feel the need to back away when I was standing close to her. And when I lean in, I would just lean in with my head instead of with my whole upper body. But I also want to have open posture. Here’s why. If I have my arms crossed across my chest, she may think I don’t care about what she has to say because now I would look like I’m leaning out instead of leaning in. And I use a tone of voice that invites confidence in sharing.
It’s important that we understand what these different terms mean and look like in actual practice and that we use them appropriately with the people with whom we are trying to do the SLOWER listening model. How we listen and speak matters to those to whom we are listening and to those with whom we are conversing.
One more quick note. You might be someone who needs to have personal space when you’re around others and you’re uncomfortable with people stepping too close into your personal space. Or, you might be a person who doesn’t have the need for any personal space when you’re around others and you’re completely comfortable with people being close up to you. I’m one of those people who has to have no personal space. If somebody walks up to me and we’re talking almost nose to nose, I don’t move and back away. And if they don’t have any personal space, they don’t move. That might look uncomfortable to some people, because most people need some personal space. As leaders, it’s our job to recognize and know what the other person’s personal space is and to be careful not to step into it. If we do, we’ll see the other person back away. If we do step into their personal space, then we have to recognize that we need to know how to casually step back and out of it so they are comfortable as we talk together.
As transformational leaders, we can improve our communication and listening skills by using the SLOWER listening model.
S – Square up and Silence
L – Lean in
O – Open posture and Open-ended questions
W – Willingness to be engaged
E – Eye contact
R – Relax, respond, repeat if necessary
If you learn to apply this SLOWER listening model with the people you’re with, whether it’s at home, the workplace, or whatever other spheres you’re in, people will feel more sure that you care about them because you’ll be engaged in listening as they speak.
Ford Taylor is a leadership strategist, keynote speaker, and the author of Relactional Leadership. As the Founder of Transformational Leadership, he is known as a man who can solve complex business issues, with straightforward practical solutions, while maintaining his focus on people.