The ability to listen is an important skill for anyone to have. But if you’re a public official who is now being taken to task for your lack of action on gun control legislation, listening — or at least looking like you’re listening — is the difference between being applauded for doing your job and being outed as a callous douche.
Take, for example, President Donald Trump who, even despite having a list detailing how to feign concern, looked absolutely uninterested during the recent White House gun violence listening session. He fidgeted. He looked away from people who were speaking. He did a perfect impression of a middle schooler sitting through a college-level lecture on supply side economics. What he didn’t do was give the impression that he was actually absorbing anything the survivors were telling him. (Except, of course, the perplexing suggestion that arming teachers across America would help cut down on school shootings.)
At some point in everyone’s life, one is forced to sit through a lecture or conversation that one finds uninteresting. In an effort to learn more about how to pretend like you’re paying attention, we spoke to Joe Navarro, body language expert and author of 13 books on the subject including the best-selling What Every BODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People, about what anyone can do to look like you’re listening, even when your heart and mind aren’t really into it.
First things first
Before we get into how to pretend to listen, it’s important to acknowledge this act in itself is a total asshole move. Navarro didn’t say as much, but did emphasize that he does not encourage play-acting of this kind. “I don’t really believe that you should pretend to listen. I think you should just make an effort to listen,” he said. This is a fair point, and indeed one many of us believe in.
It’s all in the eyes
The first step to seeming like you’re interested in what someone is saying: Look at them, and maintain eye contact. This is something most of us know by virtue of being human, so if you find yourself drifting, never look away.
“What I try to tell people is don’t fake listening, but actually listen to what people say.”
Let your head do the talking
While you’re pretending to listen to someone, sprinkle in some nods of agreement to give the impression that you know what’s going on. But don’t stop there. “One of the best things you can do when you’re talking to someone is tilt your head to the side so that you have a little bit more exposure of the neck,” said Navarro. “That will increase how you’re perceived as receptive to information.” Basically, you know that thing your dog does when you start dancing around the house naked? Do that.
Get your body into it
Listening isn’t all about your head. It’s also about your body, though your go-to actions will depend on if you’re sitting or standing. “You can lean forward in your seat if you’re seated,” said Navarro. “If you’re standing and it’s a very noisy environment, you can draw closer.” Either way, orient yourself toward the person you are attempting to deceive so that you are face-to-face. Not among Navarro’s recommendations: crossing your arms in front of your chest like you’re waiting for Air Force One to arrive.
At least try, come on
Acting like you’re listening isn’t without its risks. According to Navarro, getting caught pretending to listen has a greater negative effect than not pretending to listen at all. Not only that, but if your performance is convincing, you’ll only encourage the person boring you to keep talking even longer. “What I try to tell people is don’t fake listening, but actually listen to what people say,” Navarro said.
If you’re having trouble sustaining your interest, he suggests asking questions to help steer the conversation in a direction that is more compelling to you. And if there’s no promise of a turn in a more interesting direction, politely get out of the conversation altogether to avoid wasting the time of everyone involved. “The secret is to actually pay attention and be what I call ‘benignly curious.’” If you’re a public figure, doing this could easily out you as an uncaring jerk. But, hey, at least you’d be honest.