Are you a good listener? Many of us would say that we are. Perhaps we are good at keeping quiet and not interrupting while another is talking. But does silence mean we are truly listening? True listening involves more than a lack of verbal communication. It involves our whole body.

Dr. Albert Mehrabian, author of Silent Messages, conducted several studies on nonverbal communication. He found that 7% of any message is conveyed through words, 38% through certain vocal elements such as tone of voice, and inflection, and 55% through nonverbal body language such as facial expressions, gestures, posture, etc. This research reveals that a whopping 93% of our total communication can come from non-verbal means.

The problem comes when our modes of communication do not coincide. Research has also revealed that the non-verbal modes of communication tends to be believed more readily than or verbal assertions. For instance, when a friend greets you with a “Hi! How are you?” and you respond with a listless, monotone “Fine”, while looking at the ground, what message is that friend really getting? Of course, she is actually hearing that you are not fine. In fact, something is wrong.

What does this have to do with listening? Much indeed! Our body language can betray us if we are not truly listening. Alternatively, perhaps we may be trying hard to listen but our body language might be saying something else. We need to be sure all our modes of communication are conveying the same, and the correct message. Pay attention to what your body is saying.

Peer mentoring is something anyone can do. This is quite different from going to a psychiatrist. It does not require specialized training. It simply involves caring enough for another to want to help her; being that friend who will not leave in times of trouble; providing a listening ear, an understanding mind, and a loving heart. How can we hone our listening skills in order to be an effective peer mentor?

First, even the way you sit can speak volumes as to whether you are listening. If you are seated in chairs, you should be seated at a 90 degree angle. Sitting directly across from the other person can appear too aggressive. Sitting side by side can feel too intimate and makes eye contact difficult. Sitting catty-corner to the other person gives the right amount of intimacy, allowing for good eye contact.

Not only is our seating position important but our posture says a lot to the other person and can reveal if we are listening or not. Most psychologists would say that leaning slightly forward towards the other person helps her feel like you are listening and that you are interested in what she has to say. Beware, however, of leaning forward too intently. This can backfire! Once when at a mother/daughter event with my then 13 year old daughter, Amanda, there was some intimate conversation time provided. Someone was going around taking photos and later, I was given a photo of my ‘intimate’ chat with my daughter. What I saw horrified me! There I was sitting directly across from her, leaning forward so intensely that I looked like a lioness crouching, ready to spring! My daughter actually had a slightly startled look on her face. That photo revealed to me just how important body language truly is. I did not look like a caring, listening mom, but instead looked like I was about to devour her!

This brings me to another aspect of body language in listening – eye contact. This can be a tricky subject, because eye contact means different things in different cultures. To be an effective and caring peer mentor, it is important to be aware of the culture of your friend. I am an American living in Kenya. In my home country, when an adult is speaking to a child, that child is expected to look at that adult to show that he or she is paying attention. However, here in Kenya, a child who looks directly at an adult while that adult is speaking to him or her is considered rude! Therefore, for me to tell a child “Look at me when I am speaking to you” would be to demand that that child display rude behavior.

Generally, eye contact shows that an individual is paying attention when listening. It is good to look at your friend when she is sharing what is on her heart. However, do beware of looking so intently at her that she begins to feel uncomfortable. Look at her then give her a break. Return your look from time to time to reassure her that your mind has not strayed. You are still with her.

There are a couple more things that would do us well to remember if we want to be effective and truly helpful when practicing good listening when talking with our friends. One is to not be easily shocked – or at least don’t betray any inner shock. Nothing will chase a friend away faster than a look on our faces that makes him feel like he just confessed to being an axe murderer who just did away with his parents! The friend came to you for a listening ear, for understanding, for help. Don’t chase him away with your look of horror. Which brings me to my last point on good listening – being non-judgmental. This is related to not betraying shock, because when we show utter surprise or gasp when we have heard a confidence by a friend, we have shown them that we have passed judgment of sorts already! Keep an open mind. Be ready to listen further. Display confidence that somehow, you can go through this together. Be ready to support your friend, even if it is to help her get professional help and to just provide a listening ear. After all, good listening is the largest part of any counseling, whether by a professional or a friend.

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