The listener’s expression matters

Recent research has confirmed what great listeners have always known – the way the a listener behaves makes a huge difference to the quality of information they receive from the speaker.

The British Psychological Society reports on a study which demonstrated this experimentally. A group of students watch a short film and then described it to a listener. Half the listeners had a ‘positive’ attitude – smiling, nodding and maintaining an open body position – while the others frowned and didn’t smile.

Speakers reporting to a positive listener used more abstractions, describing aspects of the film that couldn’t be seen, such as a character’s thoughts and emotions, and also included more of their own opinions. The kind of information, in fact, that brings any piece of research to life!

“Consider what this means,” researcher Camiel Beukeboom said. “By merely smiling or frowning a listener could influence how a speaker reports information and how it is subsequently remembered, and possibly passed on. In, for instance, witness interrogations, job interviews, politics, or psychotherapy, a simple smile or frown could potentially have a large impact.”

  • Beukeboom, C. (2009). ‘When words feel right: How affective expressions of listeners change a speaker’s language use.’ European Journal of Social Psychology, 39 (5), 747-756 DOI:10.1002/ejsp.572

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