How to Look Like You Care (Hint: It’s Not Your Body Language)

This is an excerpt from a draft for my upcoming book. I would love to receive your feedback – what made sense, what was confusing, what you would have liked me to expand on, and what was superfluous. Thank you as always for your support and inspiration.

Training on listening often involves a great deal of focus on body mechanics: Which direction to face, when to nod, what to do with your feet. But focusing on displaying “good body language” makes me a less connected—and therefore a less effective—listener. It’s distracting. If my goal is to be of most service to the person in front of me, there are much more important things for me to focus on.

The Use and Abuse of Body Language

There is no question that body language is hugely important. Our bodies generally show what we feel. Body language acts like a visual cue for empathy – it lets one person “read” the emotions of another person, simply by looking at their body (tone of voice is another big cue, but that’s a story for a different day). Just by looking at us, our partner can tell if we’re interested or bored, judging or accepting, relaxed or tense.

This also means that body language can be used to trick people. You can pretend to care about someone else’s distress by making a concerned face and adding concerned noises. You can fake feeling impressed by saying Ooooh! and opening your eyes wide. You can feign interest by nodding every few seconds while thinking about your grocery-shopping list. We can try to control all the minute aspects of our bodies that communicate intention and disposition toward our partner – or we can work on our mindset, and allow our bodies to communicate it eloquently to our partner.

If you want to make someone feel welcome and appreciated, you could either focus on your body mechanics (which way should I look? How far from her should I stand? How often should I nod?) or you could cultivate your sense of welcoming and appreciating your partner, trusting your body to communicate this mindset. The goal isn’t to trick our partner into believing we care. The goal is to actually care. After all, most of us don’t want to be smiled at by an expert smiler. We want to be smiled at by someone who is genuinely happy to see us.

How to Appear Caring, Respectful, and Accepting

When we offer emotional support to someone who’s upset, it’s very important that the other person feel that we care about him, respect him, and accept him. The more our conversation partner feels cared for, respected and accepted, the more our conversation partner will feel comfortable and supported, and consequently less upset, more clear-minded and more at peace. Of course, there are two ways we can appear caring, respectful and accepting:

1) Arrange our body in a way that conveys these messages

2) Arrange our mind to adopt these attitudes, and let the body language flow from our mindset

For example, let’s say that I have a friend who loves to garden, and let’s also say that I am not very interested in gardening. If my friend tells me how upset he is that his cucumbers are failing to thrive, I can pretend to feel care and respect for his experience, or I can strive to actually care about and respect his experience. Pretending to care would mean that I try to make a concerned face, nod every 3.5 seconds, and mumble “oh no!” at times that seem appropriate. Striving to actually care would mean that I remind myself that my friend cares about learning to grow food as much as I care about learning to play piano. This is really important to him, and he is truly frustrated and upset by his lack of progress. His suffering is real, even if the surface cause of his suffering isn’t something that would make me upset. He’s upset because something he cares about is not going right, because a goal that’s important to him will not be achieved.

When I listen in this way (reminding myself that suffering is suffering, actively caring for my friend and respecting his experience) my body will naturally convey these feelings. I will not need to control my body language. My care and respect for my friend will be obvious. There is no more need for me to intentionally arrange my body than there is a need for me to glue new leaves on trees in springtime. It will come out naturally. Trying to control my body language can become a distraction, actually reducing my ability to be present with the other person. So, instead of focusing on guiding my body to the right posture, I prefer to focus on guiding my mind to the right state.

The Right State of Mind for Supportive Listening

The following attitudes will help me be a more connected and helpful supportive listener. The more fully I can adopt these attitudes, the more connected and helpful I am:

1. Being Present. This is an absolute prerequisite. In order to be helpful for you, I must be present, and my attention needs to be on you and your experience. If I think about other things, I am not present. It is impossible to pay all of my attention to more than one thing. Listening is, in essence, a meditative practice, one in which I am always bringing my attention back to my partner. Empty your hands. Empty your mind. Be present. Listen.

2. Cultivating Positive Regard. I remind myself that the person in front of me is always doing the best he can, given his resources. I actively believe that this person wants to be the best possible person, and needs support and encouragement in order to continue growing toward being the best possible version of himself.

3. Striving to Understand. Throughout a supportive interaction, the guiding question is always: Do I understand your experience correctly? Holding this mindset allows me to relax into letting the other person lead the conversation, and guides me to respond in ways that check my understanding of my partner’s experience (usually with a WIG), with humility and openness, which in turn encourages my partner to share more of himself with me.

Good listening requires a great deal of intention. Rather than spending your precious attention on arranging your body in the right way, focus on adopting the right mindset of presence, positive regard and striving to understand. Your body will convey the message to your partner, and your partner will feel supported and cared for. Relax, care, and listen. Control less. You are more than enough.

My thinking on this is enormously influenced by the teaching of Carl Rogers, the giant on whose benevolent shoulders I stand. In his original conceptualization, there are three conditions that were necessary and sufficient for healing to take place through interactions: (1) Positive Regard, (2) Accurate Empathy, and (3) Genuineness. The states of mind I listed are very closely related to the conditions Rogers named, with my own preference for action verbs superimposed on the warm and brilliant conceptualization that Rogers offered.