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Non-Verbal Cues Help Avoid Misunderstandings. Here’s How – Step 2

Listen for verbal and non-verbal cues to get total meaning. Step 2 of the Active Listening Process.

We need to listen with both our ears and our eyes. Over 65% of the information in our discussions is conveyed using non-verbal cues. [1] But what are these cues and how trustworthy are they?  In this article we explore how to utilise these non-verbal cues to uncover the total meaning of a speaker’s message and to avoid misunderstandings. This is Step 2 of the Active Listening Process.

9 Minute Read


Listen for Total Meaning Of The Speaker’s Message

In this Step 2, our goal is to stay quiet in order to absorb and understand all the information that our conversation partner is conveying to us. But to only pay attention to what they are saying verbally is to ignore vital information in their message.

In 1957 Dr. Carl Rogers and graduate student Richard Farson jointly published the original, pioneering article on Active Listening. In that article they pointed out that:

Any message a person tries to get across usually has two components: the content of the message and the feeling or attitude underlying this content.” [2]

Take as an example, my work as an electrical engineer. It was mostly project-based. I finished one project and moved onto the next. 

Now, let's suppose that I reported to my team leader, “That design project is finished.”

One obvious interpretation is that I'm indicating my readiness to start another project.

But what if I grumped, “That design project is finished!”

The literal content is the same. But the disgruntled tone of voice conveys an entirely different meaning! My team leader would possibly begin thinking that a problem needs addressing before they could give me the next project.

So we need to listen out for the both the message content and the underlying feelings or attitudes.

Understanding the Message Content

Drawing meaning from the content is relatively straightforward. In the example above, the literal meaning is simply that "the project has been completed." 

Typically, verbal cues help us to identify the content's meaning and its importance. Here are a few:

  • The number of times the speaker tells you the same thing and the different ways they express it. These repeated words and phrases signal key information.
  • Common themes running through the speaker’s message. These suggest concepts that are important to the speaker.
  • The way in which their message fits into the wider context of the situation they’re discussing, such as assumed background knowledge.
  • Highly specific statements or requests. In the engineering field for example, stakeholders are often very specific about desired project outcomes, and about functionality and operating conditions that must be incorporated into their desired product or service.
  • Sometimes the more important cue is what is not said. Specifically, is the speaker omitting any information that you think is important? If you suspect that information has been omitted, ask a few questions when you move on to Step 3. These can help reveal whether that information is simply unimportant to the speaker, or whether there's another reason for their withholding it.

Although the message content is vital, the final meaning of the speaker’s spoken words can deviate dramatically from its literal interpretation once coupled with their underlying feelings and attitudes. We saw this in the above engineering example.

Non-Verbal Cues Hint At Underlying Feelings and Attitudes

Discerning and interpreting the speaker’s underlying feelings and attitudes is more difficult than interpreting the literal content.

The difficulty for us as listeners is that we can’t see feelings and attitudes. They are hidden inside the speaker.

Life would be so much easier for our understanding if we always announced, “Just to let you know, I am about to speak with an [angry, sad, friendly, hacked-off, up-beat] attitude.”

But most of us don’t. However, we do often use more indirect cues to express our feelings and attitudes.

As listeners, it’s these non-verbal cues that we need to watch out for. Here are some common non-verbal cues: 

  • Gestures (e.g. animated, subdued, violent)
  • Facial expressions (e.g. serious or light-hearted)
  • Abnormal silence
  • Posture (such as relaxed or leaning forward)
  • Tone of voice (calm, nervous, excited, intense, etc)
  • Volume (quiet, normal, raised, etc)
  • Rate of speech

Tip: Only pay attention to cues that are relevant to the speaker's message. Ignore unconscious fidgeting, twitches or other mannerisms.

Non-Verbal Cues Are Highly Ambiguous

Naturally though, non-verbal cues can have several different meanings depending on the speaker’s current feelings and attitudes towards the discussion topic, their culture, and their past experiences.

Confusingly though, the speaker’s intended meaning of each cue can change.

The speaker may decide to apply them differently when the discussion topic changes. Or they may just be having a good or bad day that hijacks these cues.

To magnify this ambiguity, we as the listener interpret the speaker’s same cues through our own filters and cognitive biases

The upshot is that, to some degree, we will misinterpret how the speaker feels about the topic. And even if we do somehow manage to understand 90% of how they feel, we’ll probably miss the deeper nuances of their feelings and attitudes.

So what can we do to accurately grasp the total meaning of the speaker’s message?

And as a kick-start, you’ll get the free download

"10 Active Listening Questions to Improve Focus and Boost Listening Effectiveness in Your Very Next Conversation".

How to focus with 10 Active Listening questions
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Want Brilliant Discussions?

Enter your email to receive easy listening techniques & strategies, think pieces on being a better listener, and GLS blog post notifications

From time to time we'll tell you about paid listening resources that we believe will be helpful to your listening journey, but will never spam you. We hate it with a passion!

View our Privacy Policy & Terms of Use.

And as a kick-start, you’ll get the free download
"10 Active Listening Questions to Improve Focus and Boost Listening Effectiveness in Your Very Next Conversation".

How to focus with 10 Active Listening questions

Listen And Then Ask Questions

The key to correctly interpreting all these verbal and non-verbal cues is to ask targeted Active Listening questions rather than assuming that we understand them.

Targeted questions help clarify what we’re hearing and seeing. And they prompt the speaker to share more information that can help us understand more completely.

But in order to ask targeted questions we must first be quiet and listen, which is the purpose of this Step 2. In practice this means:

No talking
No interjecting, interrupting or diverting the speaker
No finishing their sentences

The aim is to give the speaker the space and time that they need to fully express themselves. It also forces us to truly absorb what they’re saying rather than being preoccupied with planning our next comment.

Although… don’t stare at them blankly.

Use Support Responses

Most speakers need visual and verbal signals to encourage them on - obviously some don't.  Dr Charles Derber calls these signals "support responses". [3] Without support-responses most speakers subconsciously begin to wonder whether or not we are interested.  Eventually they stop speaking and the conversation dies.

So, use support responses to make your discussion partner feel at ease and to encourage them to continue talking. Active Listening questions are support responses. However, at this stage use less verbal ones such as nodding, making appropriate eye contact, and using back channel signals such as “mhm”, “yes”, “aha”, “uh-huh”, “go on” and “that makes sense”.

But keep your brain engaged! It’s very easy to mindless perform support responses, yet be miles away in your mind.

Stay focused by looking for those verbal and non-verbal cues discussed above. Use them to help you to build up a picture of the message that the speaker is trying to convey.

But when do we stop listening and begin asking those Active Listening questions?

Ask Questions At Natural Pauses

After a brief time of listening silently, questions will start popping into your head…

  • Maybe you need to clarify a statement they’ve made.
  • Or, why were they were particularly animated when discussing their business needs?!
  • Or, you need them to elaborate because a request they made of you was particularly vague. So until you know more information, it wouldn’t be prudent to make any commitment.

However, don’t blurt out questions the moment they arise - that is, don’t interrupt. Instead, wait. Allow the speaker to finish their thought. I find that with a little patience on my part, the speaker often eventually answers my question without me needing to ask it.

If your question remains unanswered though, begin looking for a natural pause and ask it.

This is when we move from  Step 2 (listening attentively for total meaning) of the Active Listening process into Step 3 (asking questions to seek more information).

You will naturally cycle back and forth between steps 2 and 3, listening then drawing out more information, then listening again, until you think you sufficiently understand their message from their perspective. Then you’ll move onto Step 4 in order to confirm your understanding.

Consequently, each iteration of Step 2 is usually quite a quick, maybe only 2 to 5 minutes.

Putting It All Together

When communicating we convey our message using both verbal and non-verbal information. In particular, our underlying feelings and emotions modify the meaning of the literal content in our message.

In brief - it's not what they say. It's how they say it.

"It's not what they say. It's how they say it. Pay attention to the total meaning  of what you're being told." This is Step 2 of the Active Listening Process by Andrew Ward

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Therefore, to have any hope of sufficiently understanding the discussion topic from the speaker’s perspective (aka cognitive empathy) we must listen with both our ears and our eyes. If we overlook the non-verbal cues then we will not be able to grasp the total meaning of the speaker’s message.

With respect to the Active Listening process, Step 2 - Listen for Total Meaning - is the ‘business’ step. The entire process centres around it. Step 1 is all about maintaining the right mindset in order to listen well. Steps 3 to 5 are about clarifying any vague and ambiguous statements and confirming our understanding of what we’ve heard.

But this step (Step 2) is about listening attentively to both the verbal and non-verbal information. It is when we stop talking and just listen.

Have you had a discussion when underlying feelings or attitudes entirely changed the meaning of what your conversation partner said? How did you become aware of this difference in meaning? Tell us about it in the comments below.


  1. 1
    Brownell, Judi. “Listening - Attitudes, Principles, and Skills”, 5th Ed., Pearson Education, Inc., 2013, p. 181.
  2. 2
    Rogers, C., Farson, R. E., "Active Listening", Gordon Training Inc.,, Extract from 1957 article.
  3. 3
    Derber, Charles, “The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life”, 2nd Ed, Oxford University Press, June 2000. Used with permission.
  4. 4
    Feature image credit: Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
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About the Author

Hello, I’m Andrew Ward and I’m the Kiwi guy writing most of the stuff on this website. You can read more about my story here.