Providing Feedback to Speakers

There are many ways in which a listener can offer feedback to a speaker, sometimes even wordlessly. Keeping an open mind is something you do internally, but you can also demonstrate openness to a speaker through your nonverbal communication.

Nonverbal Feedback

Boothman recommends listening with your whole body, not just your ears.[1] Consider how confident you would feel speaking to a room full of people with their eyes closed, arms and legs crossed, and bodies bent in slouches. These listeners are presenting nonverbal cues that they are uninterested and unimpressed. Meanwhile, a listener sitting up straight, facing you with an intent look on his face is more likely to offer reassurance that your words are being understood.

Eye contact is another nonverbal cue to the speaker that you are paying attention. You don’t want to be bug-eyed and unblinking; the speaker might assume there is a tiger behind her and begin to panic as you seem to be doing. However, attentive eye contact can indicate you are listening, and help you to stay focused too. There are some cultures where maintaining eye contact would cause discomfort, so keep that in mind. Also, you may be someone who listens better with eyes closed to visualize what is being said. This can be difficult for a speaker to recognize, so if this is you consider incorporating one of the following nonverbals while you listen with eyes closed.

Nodding your head affirmatively, making back-channel responses such as “Yes,” “Umhum,” or “OK” can help the speaker gauge your interest. Even the speed of your head nod can signal your level of patience or understanding.[2] Leaning in as a listener is far more encouraging than slumping in your seat. Miller suggests the “listener’s lean” demonstrates “ultimate interest. This joyous feedback is reflexive. It physically endorses our communiqué.”[3] Nevertheless, sending too many nonverbal responses to the speaker can go wrong too. After all, a conference room full of people shifting in their seats and nodding their heads may translate as a restless audience that the speaker needs to recapture.

The only way to entertain some folks is to listen to them. ~ Kin Hubbard

Verbal Feedback

While speakers sometimes want all questions held until the end of a presentation, asking questions when the opportunity presents itself can help you as a listener. For one, you have to listen in order to be able to ask a question. Your goal should be to ask open-ended questions (“What do you think about….?” rather than “We should do …., right?”). You can use questions to confirm your understanding of the speaker’s message. If you’re not entirely sure of a significant point, you might ask a clarifying question. These are questions such as “What did you mean?” “Can you be more specific?” or “What is a concrete example of your point?” These can help your comprehension, while also offering the speaker feedback. When asking questions, approach the speaker in a positive, non-threatening way. A good listener doesn’t seek to put the speaker on the defensive. You want to demonstrate your objectivity and willingness to listen to the speaker’s response.

Finally, paraphrasing what has been said in your interactions with the speaker can be another useful tool for a good listener. Imagine the difference if, before you respond to an upset colleague, you take a moment to say, “I understand you are disappointed we didn’t consult you before moving forward with the product release…” before you say, “we didn’t have time to get everyone’s input.” Reflecting back the speaker’s point of view before you respond allows the speaker to know you were listening and helps foster trust that everyone’s voice is being heard.

  1. Boothman, N. (2008). How to make people like you in 90 seconds or less. NY: Workman Publishing.
  2. Pease, A., & Pease, B. (2006). The definitive book of body language. New York: Bantam Books.
  3. Miller, C. (1994). The empowered communicator: Keys to unlocking an audience. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.